What are we to make of the standoff between the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the State Department’s move to close the Palestinian mission to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.?
On the surface, it’s about an American law that says if Palestinian leaders seek statehood by means other than negotiating with Israel, or encourage the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Israelis for alleged crimes against Palestinians, the U.S. will close the Palestinian mission.
This past week a State Department official said the PA had violated the law and has to close down its mission. The official apparently was alluding to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ call at the United Nations in September for the ICC to go after Israeli officials regarding the settlements. In response, a PA official said this week that if the office is closed, his group will cut its ties to the U.S.
No doubt pro-Israel supporters on the right are pleased, citing the administration’s willingness to take on rather than overprotect the PA, and making the prospects for peace talks (and Israeli concessions) even less likely now. More dovish supporters of Israel, though, maintain that the U.S. is overplaying its hand, giving Abbas an excuse to avoid negotiations and making progress on the peace front even less likely now.
Expounding on that latter view, Michael Koplow, policy director for Israel Policy Forum, points out that the State Department move comes on the eve of a significant deadline. President Trump has until Dec. 1 to decide whether or not to sign the next six-month waiver that would have the American Embassy in Israel remain in Tel Aviv rather than move to Jerusalem. Koplow notes that despite his campaign pledge to make the embassy move a priority, Trump is likely to sign the waiver. So he may have initiated the PA mission closing to “tamp down some of the criticism” he is sure to get from right-leaning Israel advocates and maintain their support, according to Koplow.
It remains to be seen whether this additional U.S. pressure on Abbas will bring him closer to the peace table or further away. In the meantime, we note that this week marks the 40th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, which led to the Israel-Egypt peace agreement that still holds. (See story on page 26.) The contrast between bold, risk-taking leaders like Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, and today’s Mideast leaders, is stark, and helps explain why peace continues to elude the region.