Trump’s New Attempt to Push Palestinians to Negotiate With Israel

The administration has closed the PLO office in Washington, citing a lack of progress in the peace process.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The Trump administration announced Monday the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization office, which serves as the de facto Palestinian Embassy, in Washington. It was the latest in a series of punitive measures the administration says is designed to force the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel. And the announcement from the U.S. State Department came the same day that John Bolton, the national-security adviser, railed against the International Criminal Court for going after Israel and the United States, declaring the international judicial body “dead to us.”

What it added up to was another effort to turn up the pressure on Palestinians, who a Palestinian diplomat said are “immune” to it, in the context of the administration’s broader skepticism of international institutions and their role in the world.

“We have permitted the PLO office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between Israelis and the Palestinians since the expiration of a previous waiver in November 2017,” Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

Nauert cited, among other factors, the Palestinian criticism of the long-expected but still unpublished U.S. plan for peace in the region, a proposal that is being drafted by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law who serves as a White House senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy to the peace process. “This decision is also consistent with administration and congressional concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court,” she added.

Husam Zomlot, the head of the PLO office in Washington, called the administration’s action “reckless.”

What the office’s closure essentially means is that there will be no Palestinian representation in Washington. But as Zomlot has been out of the U.S. capital since December, not much will change in reality, Ghaith al-Omari, an expert on Palestinians at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. He said the problem with the Trump administration’s logic in closing the PLO office is twofold: “One, there is no negotiation to go back to. Two, this is the kind of pressure that frankly doesn’t impact the calculation of the Palestinian Authority. This is a symbolic move that will not create the kind of pressure that they want. Instead, it will harden the Palestinian position.”

Indeed, Zomlot said attempts to pressure the Palestinians won’t work because “national decision-making processes and our people are immune to acts of … bullying.” He said the U.S. announcement only undermined the United States’ role as a peacemaker.

“This did not come as a surprise to us,” Zomlot said. “Putting all the dots together, and crossing all the t’s and following the trajectory of what has been happening over the last nine months, it is obvious that the team of Mr. Trump is on a mission, and the mission is primarily to simply give Israel exactly what it wants.”

Over that period, the Trump administration has cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, depriving the UN agency of critical funds from its largest international donor; moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in line with U.S. law passed in 1995 (Israel regards Jerusalem as its eternal, undivided capital, and the Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state); and cut about $200 million in aid for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In remarks Monday to the Federalist Society, Bolton related the move to close the PLO office to a potentially further-reaching policy of refusing to cooperate with the ICC, which he said was biased against Israel. He called the institution as a whole “ineffective, unaccountable, and, indeed, outright dangerous.”

“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 court says it has jurisdiction even in those countries that are not party to it. Israel, like the U.S., is not a member of the court, though the Palestinian Authority is, and has attempted to get the court to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“If the court comes after us, Israel, or other U.S. allies, we will not sit quietly,” Bolton said, adding: “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”

Should that occur, it’s likely to disproportionately affect European nations that support the ICC and what Bolton called the “global-governance dogma.” He said countries that cooperate with ICC investigations of the United States and its allies will face consequences when the U.S. sets foreign-assistance, military-assistance, and intelligence-sharing levels.

“We will consider taking steps in the UN Security Council to constrain the court’s sweeping powers, including ensuring that the ICC does not exercise jurisdiction over Americans and the nationals of our allies that have not ratified the Rome Statute,” he said.

The ICC’s history—and Bolton’s animosity toward it—dates back to 2002. President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the international treaty that set up the court because of a belief that, as Bolton put it Monday, the court will unfairly target Americans, including service members, in an “assault on the constitutional rights of the American people and the sovereignty of the United States.” (U.S. courts address such violations when they have been found to occur.)

Although the the ICC has long irritated the U.S., its recent actions feed into Bolton’s view of it as an unchecked supranational entity: Last November, the ICC prosecutor sought authorization to investigate alleged war crimes committed by U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan. But the Trump administration’s policy could have dramatic consequences for the court as it considers whether to investigate the violence against the Rohingya in Burma or any future consideration of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. Bolton, in his remarks, made clear that he had a “clear and unambiguous message” for the court.

“The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” he said. “We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Zomlot, the Palestinian official, told me that the Trump administration’s announcement is a confirmation that the Palestinian strategy is working, “and therefore we will double our efforts and we will encourage the International Criminal Court to actually put Israel under international scrutiny and accountability.”