PLO Washington office to stay open but that’s no sign of commitment to peace
The Trump administration has backtracked on its decision to close the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington, but the fact the issue came up at all may speak volumes. It says a great deal about this administration’s view of peace in the Middle East. As one US cable news host recently described it: the Palestinian-Israeli issue “has mostly been dormant since President Trump took office.”
There is little to suggest it is in rude good health even now, although the Trump administration has undoubtedly refocused attention by hinting at ambitious moves to broker regional peace.
But “mostly dormant” nicely sums up the official US approach to the Palestinian-Israeli issue until now. There have been spasms of interest, occasional talk about a comprehensive plan to achieve peace in the Middle East and infrequent sightings in the region of the Trump administration’s two men assigned to achieve this “ultimate deal” — the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former Trump Organisation lawyer Jason Greenblatt. But the US State Department’s threat to close the PLO office created a rift with the Palestinians, which was hardly likely to be good for efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
Now, that threat is past, though the PLO has been advised by the State Department “to limit its activities to those related to achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
In any case, the Trump administration was using a legal technicality to compel the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations with the Israelis. The PLO has had an office in Washington since President Bill Clinton approved it in 1994. In 2011, President Barack Obama allowed the PLO to fly its flag outside the office. But in 2015, the Republican-controlled US Congress passed a law stating that if the PLO ever tried to take the Israelis to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes against the Palestinians, their office could be closed. In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly the PLO had done exactly that.
The PLO offered a defiant response to US attempts to arm-twist it into negotiations with the Israelis. It threatened to cut off all communication with the Trump administration. This would have endangered any support the PLO enjoyed within the Trump administration and imperiled future financial backing. But it would have also undermined US attempts to restart peace talks and dealt a blow to attempts to forge a regional alliance between Israel and other Sunni Arab countries in an effort to counteract Iran.
Even before it became clear the PLO office in Washington would not be closed after all, it was hard to take the Kushner-Greenblatt attempts to make peace seriously. The consensus among Middle Eastern experts in Washington and beyond has long been that both men are clueless. And that every government in the region knows this.
However, at least some of the focus on Palestinian-Israeli peace is on account of Trump’s changing equation with Kushner. Less than a year ago, when Trump took office, he settled Kushner with a wide variety of tasks, including solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Recent media reports have speculated, however, that Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly has been slowly reducing Kushner’s role in everything but the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with Trump’s blessing. Trump is said to be out of sorts with what he considers a string of bad advice from Kushner.
The more interesting aspect is the Trump administration’s long game as it concerns other Arab countries in the region. Apparently with much prodding from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, it is trying to convince Saudi Arabia to force the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel in exchange for military and intelligence information concerning Iran. The plan would call for Saudi Arabia to also offer an incentive of $10 billion to go along with the “ultimate deal.” Previous American administrations have tried this gambit in some form with Jordan and Egypt with little success. Closing the PLO office would have also scuttled these efforts.
Realistically, it’s extremely likely the Palestinian-Israeli issue will become “dormant” once again, as the US domestic agenda takes centre stage. This includes the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump administration’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, the controversial US Senate race in Alabama and Republican efforts to pass a tax cut. There may be little room for anything else on the American political agenda for the next few months.