The Trump administration announced Monday that it is closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, citing Palestinian leaders’ resistance to peace talks and attempts to get an international court to prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes.
The announcement marks the latest blow by the United States against the Palestinians amid a stalled Mideast peace process.
“The United States will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said during a speech to the Federalist Society. “The Trump administration will not keep the office open when the Palestinians refuse to take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
He added: “The United States supports a direct and robust peace process, and we will not allow the ICC (International Criminal Court), or any other organization, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense.”
The White House has reportedly mulled shutting down the PLO mission in Washington since last November, unless the Palestinian leadership enters serious peace talks with Israel.
Bolton’s announcement on closing the mission adheres to a provision in U.S. law saying the PLO mission must close if the Palestinians try to get the ICC to prosecute Israelis for crimes against Palestinians.
“While the court welcomes the membership of the so-called State of Palestine, it has threatened Israel—a liberal, democratic nation—with investigation into its actions to defend citizens from terrorist attacks in the West Bank and Gaza,” Bolton said. “There has also been a suggestion that the ICC will investigate Israeli construction of housing projects on the West Bank.”
The U.S. does not currently recognize the Palestinian territories as an independent state, though the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in 2012 to recognize Palestine as a “non-member observer state.”
Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said on Monday that the announcement does not change the U.S. stance that direct negotiations are the way to forge a peace deal, but warned the PLO against any rash actions.
“The United States continues to believe that direct negotiations between the two parties are the only way forward,” Nauert said in a statement. “This action should not be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement. We are not retreating from our efforts to achieve a lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Closing the PLO mission in Washington almost certainly will stiffen the Palestinians’ opposition to any peace plan now being worked on by Trump’s Middle East point men, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.
The Palestinian leadership has been openly hostile to any proposal from the administration, citing what it says is a pro-Israel bias.
Senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said the U.S. decision was designed “to protect Israeli crimes” and added that the move would not stop Palestinian legal action against Israel.
“We reiterate that the rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale, that we will not succumb to US threats and bullying,” Erekat said in a statement. “Accordingly, we continue to call upon the International Criminal Court to open its immediate investigation into Israeli crimes.”
One issue the U.S. has had with the Palestinian Authority are the stipends paid to the families of Palestinians killed, injured or jailed for attacks on Israel. Israel and the Trump administration have repeatedly demanded that those payments from a so-called “martyrs’ fund” be halted because they encourage terrorism. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to do so.
The State Department announced earlier this month that the United States is ending its decades of funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. A week earlier, the administration slashed bilateral U.S. aid for projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
The U.S. supplies nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, and had been demanding reforms in the way it is run. The department said in a written statement the U.S. “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.” The decision cuts nearly $300 million of planned support.
Besides Monday’s announcement and the previous withdrawal of aid, the Trump administration dealt another blow to the Palestinians back in May when the U.S. moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem.
On the day the embassy opened, Israel killed more than 60 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old girl, during protests that followed. It was the bloodiest day since a war between Hamas and Israel ended in 2014.
Israel said it is defending its border and accuses Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of the protests.
Along with the announcement of the closing of the PLO mission, Bolton also said the U.S. will impose sanctions against the ICC if it investigates the U.S. and Israel.
“If the court comes after us, Israel or other allies, we will not sit quietly,” Bolton said. “We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system.”
Fox News’ Lukas Mikelionis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.