x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Palestinian leaders denounce US threat to close PLO office as 'blackmail'

PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said a US move to close the office in Washington would disqualify the Americans from any role in peacemaking

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has determined that the Palestinians violated an obscure provision in American law. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has determined that the Palestinians violated an obscure provision in American law. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Palestinian leaders on Saturday denounced as "blackmail" a US threat to close the PLO office in Washington in response to Palestinian calls for Israel to be prosecuted at the ICC over its illegal settlement activities.

"If they want to suspend official relations with the Palestinians, if they want to close the office, that certainly would disqualify them from any role in peacemaking," PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told The National.

"How can they make peace if they boycott official contact with the Palestinians? If they think they can blackmail us into more concessions, what concessions exactly do they want?"

She said such a move by the US "would only be encouraging and supporting Israeli impunity".

"We can't accept this effort to frighten us or impose conditions on the Palestinian people," added PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf.

"Talk of closing the office is completely rejected. There will be no change in our policy. We will not withdraw from our position toward the ICC or any position that supports freedom and independence for our people."

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US officials said the Trump administration had put the Palestinian leadership on notice on Friday that it would close the PLO office in Washington unless it entered serious peace talks with Israel, Associated Press reported.

The move, which comes as the administration is formulating a new Middle East peace initiative, follows a determination by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson that the Palestinians violated an obscure provision in US law. According to this provision, the PLO office must close if the Palestinian leadership tries to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Israel for alleged crimes against the Palestinians. The law gives the US president leeway to keep the office open, however, if he determines the Palestinians are in "direct and meaningful negotiations" with Israel.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al Malki said on Saturday that the Palestinian Authority had received a letter from the US state department two days before which said Mr Tillerson had not found enough reasons to keep the office open, Agence France-Presse reported.

"This has not happened in the past, and we have demanded clarifications from the State Department and the White House," he told AFP. "They told us that there would be a meeting of senior legal experts on Monday. Then they would give a clear answer."

In September, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in his speech at the UN General Assembly that the Palestinians had called on the ICC to investigate and prosecute Israeli officials for "their involvement in settlement activities and aggressions against our people".

Ms Ashrawi said Mr Abbas was only asking the ICC to do its job of holding violators of international law to account. She stressed that the Palestinians have not yet referred any actual cases to the ICC.

"The US doesn't object to Israel violating international law and destroying the foundations of peace but it objects to a statement by the president that Israel has to be held to account by the ICC. It lacks any logic," she said.

"Sometimes in their overzealousness to do Israel's bidding or support Israel blindly they can make serious mistakes that can affect American interests and the prospects of peace. They flex their muscles against someone with little if anything to lose but when it comes to the occupying power, to the stronger party, to the oppressor, to the party that's violating international law all the time, somehow they bend over backward to accommodate and reward.

"When it comes to the Palestinians it's constantly the stick and the pressure and blackmail."

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon had no immediate comment on the US threat, which was expected to please the hard-line government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has boosted settlement construction across the West Bank since the Trump administration took office and recently approved 81 new housing units in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron. Settlement activity is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from moving its nationals into occupied territory. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration has refrained from publicly criticising the Israeli practice.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister who is currently vice president of the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, predicted that Mr Abbas would not change his policy towards the ICC as a result of the threat.

"You cannot prevent the Palestinians from pursuing the international legal track while the US is not doing anything to prevent Israel from breaching international law," he said. "They are not trying in any way to stop Israeli violations."

He added that the US threat is "consistent with the very hostile and negative attitude of this administration towards the Palestinians".

"It is part of the increased American bias under this administration."

In Mr Khatib's view, the US following through on the threat will have a negative impact on Washington's ability to promote a new peace initiative.

"If the US takes such punitive measures this will disqualify it from playing a mediating role in the conflict. The Palestinians can't accept proposals inconsistent with international legality. No one should blame us for turning down such initiatives. Settlements are illegal and any initiative must include a halt to settlement expansion."