Threat could undermine Middle East peace efforts

WASHINGTON — The Palestinians threatened on Saturday to suspend all communication with the United States if the Trump administration follows through with plans to close their diplomatic office in Washington. The potential rupture in relations threatens to undermine President Donald Trump’s bid for Mideast peace — a mission he has handed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the U.S. decision was “very unfortunate and unacceptable,” and accused Washington of bowing to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “at a time when we are trying to cooperate to achieve the ultimate deal.”

In a video statement on social media, Erekat said: “We will put on hold all our communications with this American administration.”

There was no immediate reaction from the Trump administration. Netanyahu’s office said the closure was “a matter of U.S. law.”

U.S. officials had insisted before Erekat’s statement that the move wasn’t aimed at increasing leverage over the Palestinians, but merely the unavoidable consequence of U.S. law.

Cutting off ties would carry great risks for the Palestinians. It could antagonize an administration they already suspect is biased toward Israel and cut put millions of dollars of critical U.S. aid in jeopardy.

However, unresponsive Palestinians would deal an embarrassing blow to the Trump administration ahead of an expected peace initiative and potentially prevent it from getting off the ground. Their stance could also complicate U.S. efforts to promote a regionwide approach by bringing together Israel with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab allies in a joint effort against Iran. Arab countries might be reluctant to get too close to Israel in the absence of serious progress on the Palestinian issue.

The administration announced late Friday that the Palestinians had run afoul of a legal provision that says the Palestine Liberation Organization cannot operate a Washington office if the Palestinians try to get the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis for crimes against Palestinians.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined that the Palestinians crossed that line in September, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the court to investigate and prosecute Israelis, according to State Department officials. They weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the situation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

It wasn’t clear when the office would close or whether the Palestinians would have to clear out of the building entirely or just close it to the public. Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said he was told by the Americans that U.S. and State Department legal teams would meet Monday to decide how the new situation would affect the office, the functioning of diplomats and contacts with the Palestinians.

“We will wait to hear back from them,” Malki said. After that, the Palestinians will decide how to react.

Under the law, Trump now has 90 days to consider whether the Palestinians are in “direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” If Trump determines they are, then the mission can reopen, officials said.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said the U.S. was “disqualifying itself as a peace broker in the region” by refusing to extend a waiver from the law.

“Conditioning the renewal of the waiver on the Palestinians’ sticking to ‘direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel’ is actually superfluous since negotiations are nonexistent, and the current U.S. administration has yet to present any kind of peace initiative,” she said in a statement.

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