Over the weekend, news emerged that the status of the Palestinian mission to the United States was in danger. While the Palestinian Authority does not have an embassy in Washington since the U.S. does not recognize a state of Palestine, President Clinton allowed the PLO to open a mission to the U.S. in 1994 in the wake of the Oslo Accords by waiving the 1987 law forbidding the organization to open such an office. That mission, however, was subject to two conditions under the 2015 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act in order to remain open and to which the U.S. government must certify every six months: that the Palestinians have not obtained statehood status at the United Nations outside of a negotiated agreement with Israel, and that the Palestinians have not “taken any action with respect to the ICC [International Criminal Court]that is intended to influence a determination by the ICC to initiate a judicially authorized investigation, or to actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.” Even if one of these two things did occur and the president was not able to certify Palestinian compliance, the PLO mission could still remain open if ninety days later the president certified that the Palestinians had “entered into direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” (For more on the specific legislative sources involved here, check out Lara Friedman’s Twitter feed, to which I am indebted for being able to find links to these laws and a summary of what they mandate in one convenient place)
Despite the Trump administration certifying Palestinian compliance in April of this year, a State Department spokesman on Friday announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined that “certain statements made by Palestinian leaders about the ICC” meant that the Palestinians were not in compliance, and that the PLO mission could therefore be closed. While the State Department did not further specify, the widely held presumption is that the statements referred to are President Abbas’s comments before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in September calling on the ICC to investigate and prosecute Israeli officials for settlement activity. There is certainly an argument to be made that the law on the books gave the administration no choice but to act, although it raises the question of why Palestinian compliance with the ICC provision was signed in April given repeated Palestinian threats over years to go to the ICC. That this is all emerging now also seems too suspicious to be completely coincidental with talk in the air of a soon-to-be revealed White House peace initiative.
In some ways, the timing of this makes little sense, and in other ways it makes perfect sense. On the one hand, the Trump administration is trying to get both Israelis and Palestinians back to the table. The Palestinians, however, are wary and distrustful of nearly everyone involved: distrustful that the Israeli government is serious about making an offer that the Palestinians can accept, distrustful that the Trump administration is going to take Palestinian concerns seriously, and distrustful that Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are pushing for a process of some sort actually have the Palestinians’ best interests at heart. In this environment, closing down the Palestinian mission confirms to the Palestinians that all of their worst fears and suspicions are correct, and that their wariness is warranted. It essentially takes what little the Palestinians have away from them before anything even gets off the ground, and makes them even more reluctant to engage. In fact, the Palestinian response to the news about their mission was a message from veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat declaring that the Palestinians would cut off all contact with the Trump administration should the mission be forcibly closed, which would doom any White House Middle East peace efforts before they are even formally introduced.
On the other hand, the Trump administration is preparing a peace initiative that it wants the Israelis and Palestinians to, at a minimum, not reject out of hand. Threatening to shutter the Palestinian mission in Washington because of a law that is already on the books but giving the Palestinians a built-in escape route of entering into meaningful negotiations with Israel is a stroke of evil genius. It forces the Palestinians to listen to whatever the Trump team unveils without immediately walking away, no matter what the contents, and gives the White House a political win by demonstrating that it is getting the parties to sit down in furtherance of its “ultimate deal” ambitions. It ambushes the Palestinians in a way that provides the Trump administration with something that it wants. That the U.S. waited to spring this upon the Palestinians until right before it appears to be restarting an American-led process lends further credence to the theory that the White House is on the verge of making public whatever it has been working on in private.
There is one other element that I suspect is involved in the timing here, which is that on December 1, President Trump is likely to sign the next six month waiver keeping the American Embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv rather than moving it to Jerusalem. This is bound to set off a round of howling given the repeated promises Trump made during the campaign to move the embassy on day one of his presidency and the status to which parts of the pro-Israel community have elevated this issue. By not moving the American embassy but demonstrating his willingness to close the Palestinian mission, Trump may be seeking to tamp down some of the criticism that he will get by effectively arguing that just as he has been using the embassy location as a way to give the peace process a chance to succeed, he is subjecting the Palestinian side to a similar logic and in a harsher and more retaliatory manner. It will not forestall the criticism entirely should the American embassy waiver be signed, but it provides some red meat to an audience that will be looking for reassurances that Trump’s support of Israel is rock solid.
The most important question in all of this is whether the gambit will work, not just in getting the Palestinians to the table but to compel them to accept the actual parameters that are laid out. On that count, I am skeptical; in fact, this may actually backfire. Presidents of both parties going back decades always seem to have an acute understanding and sensitivity (and in my opinion, rightly so) to Israeli political realities and what will make it politically easier for an Israeli prime minister to engage. This perspective is lost entirely, however, when it comes to the Palestinians. Abbas is facing a Palestinian population and political class who believe that the Trump administration and the Israelis are trying to ambush them.
The more that this type of overt pressure is placed on Abbas before the details of the Trump plan are even revealed, the politically more advantageous it becomes for him personally to stand up to the White House and demonstrate his defiance. Much like President Obama’s unpopularity in Israel made it easy – and even the smart political move – for Prime Minister Netanyahu to set himself in opposition to the president, closing the Palestinian mission now creates a similar incentive structure for Abbas. This does not mean that pressure should have no place in getting the Palestinians to negotiate on American terms, but there is a magic balancing point between carrots and sticks that this completely barrels over. Even if the Palestinians negotiate with Israel for no other reason than to keep their Washington mission open, this will not make them more amenable to a reasonable agreement or more trusting of the American approach. It will remain to be seen whether the mission is indeed shuttered, and whether this is part of a larger plan or the State Department simply complying with a law that it has no choice but to acknowledge. Whatever the result, it has only heightened the tension and anticipation surrounding the cards that the White House has been holding close to its vest.