In a recent press conference, a US State Department official told American media that the government will allow the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington DC to remain open—for now.
The announcement comes after a week-long political row between Washington and
The clash began after US media reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened to close the PLO office following the group’s violation of US law.
The violation the Palestinian group committed was, of course, its appeal to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to prosecute high ranking Israeli officials and military officers for their complacency with- and in some cases direct involvement in - war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
In September, several Palestinian advocacy groups submitted a 700-page body of evidence detailing these alleged crimes. The four participating groups (which included the Palestinian Center for Human Rights) urged the ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in a letter to "urgently open a full investigation into the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory." The claim made by the Palestinians is that sustained crimes against populations in these areas have been occurring for decades, including “murder, deportation or transfer of population, persecution, and apartheid.”
The problem is that according to American law, permission for the PLO to operate within the United States is contingent upon no Palestinian group pressing charges against Israel via the ICC.
There are several rationales behind this provision, called an “obscure” legal detail by some observers.
From a purely legal perspective, it likely may be designed to prevent political groups from seeking legal action against a US ally through a court whose authority America does not recognize. This would not be surprising considering the less than positive attitude US policymakers have had toward the ICC over the past decade and a half.
A bit of context is required:
The source of the ICC mandate to try criminal cases stems from the international accord known as the Rome Statute of 1998. The Statute established four broad categories of international crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the “crime of aggression.” Although the United States became a signatory of the Statute in December 2000, the government pulled out of the treaty in 2002. The idea that American military officers would be able to be tried and punished by a legal body outside of the United States was too much for even many of the most globalist-leaning members of Congress.
In August 2002, just a few months following the government’s formal notice that it would not ratify the Statute, Congress passed the American Service-Members' Protection Act (ASPA), which contained a number of provisions, including authorization of the President to "use all necessary and appropriate means to bring about the release of any U.S. or allied personnel being detained by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court."
That is toned down legal language for: If anyone tries to detain American or allied soldiers for trial in the ICC we will consider it an attack against us, and we will fight back.
Indeed the law preventing Palestinians from pursuing their grievances against Israel through The Hague is in line with the general policy attitude espoused by ASPA. In this sense, the rule is not “obscure” at all but very much part of the United States’ attitude toward international justice being meted out on America and their friends.
On the Palestinian end, the responses to the administration's statements have been pretty high handed. Palestinian officials have warned that they will freeze all diplomatic relations and communications with the US if the PLO office is closed. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat scolded the US government stating that "this is very unfortunate and unacceptable” and claimed that the decision is a result of “pressure being exerted” on the president and his administration by the Israeli government. “We are trying to achieve the ultimate deal,” said Erekat, adding that such steps by American leaders will "undermine the whole peace process.”
Of course the Palestinians suffering consequences for their recent move in the ICC is far from a given. The rule forbidding this action comes with the caveat that the president can annul the consequences within ninety days of the initial offense if he determines that the Palestinians are engaged in “direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
At the time, Secretary Tillerson also played down the implications of his own announcement. After iterating that the State Department was “unable to issue new certification” for the PLO office, the Secretary was quick to add that “we are not cutting off relations with the PLO, nor do we intend to stop working with the Palestinian Authority.” He assured the international community that US relations with the PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA) “extend well beyond contacts with the PLO office in Washington and that America will always “remain focused on a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that will resolve core issues between the parties.” The “measure” of closing the office said Tillerson, should in no way indicate that the US was “backing off those efforts.”
As the State Department’s recent reverse shows, no major changes in the status quo will be happening anytime soon. However, the Trump administration will continue waiving around the threat of closing the PLO’s Washington office, and demand changes to the Palestinians’ actions in the ICC or other indications of sincerity in peace talks. In its announcement allowing the PLO office to remain open, the State Department clarified that it had advised the Palestinians “to limit its activities to those related to achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace.”
This series of events shows just how serious the US is about maintaining control over the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and not allowing any arbitration happen outside the main players.
The outcome of this political row should demonstrate how much leverage Washington really maintains over Palestinian rulers.