Under US law, for the office to operate the Secretary of State must certify every six months that the PLO has complied with conditions imposed by Congress. The latest six-month period finished on Thursday.
Permission was not renewed because of a speech by President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly in September, in which he suggested taking the issue of Israeli settlements to the International Criminal Court, a State Department official told Arab News. The threat of closure is also aimed at persuading the Palestinians to enter talks with Israel within 90 days, the official said.
“The Palestinian Authority received a letter from the State Department two days ago saying that the Secretary of State had not found enough reasons to keep the office open,” the Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Malki said.
“This is the first time since the 1980s that there has been a delay in signing the renewed permission so the office can stay open. We have demanded clarifications from the State Department and the White House. They told us that there would be a meeting of senior legal experts on Monday. Then they would give a clear answer.”
The senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat has written to the US administration calling the threatened closure “unacceptable, an escalatory step and a political decision that threatens to end the US role in the peace process,” Al-Malki said.
Although the PLO’s license to operate has not been renewed, US law allows the office to operate “in a reduced manner” for 90 days, giving time for negotiations, Al-Malki said.
Majdi Khalidi, special diplomatic adviser to President Abbas, told Arab News the decision did not affect the visa and residency of the Palestinian ambassador in Washington, and a PLO source in Washington said the Palestinian delegation were not worried about the status of their office.
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, told Arab News the closure threat was a US bluff. “They are just waving this threat with the hope it can produce results,” he said.
The State Department official told Arab News: “The Secretary of State concluded that the factual record, in particular certain statements made by Palestinian leaders about the International Criminal Court, did not permit him to make the factual certification required by the statute.
“The statute allows for … operation of the PLO’s Washington office if, after 90 days, the President determines the Palestinians have entered into direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel. We are hopeful that this closure will be short-lived.
“We are not cutting off relations with the PLO, nor do we intend to stop working with the Palestinian Authority. Our relations with the PLO and PA extend well beyond contacts with the PLO office in Washington.
“We remain focused on a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that will resolve core issues between the parties.
“This measure should in no way be seen as a signal that the US is backing off those efforts. Nor should it be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement.”
In 2011, under the Obama administration, the US allowed the Palestinians to fly their flag over the PLO office, an upgrade to the status of their mission that the Palestinians hailed as historic.