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U.S. ups pressure on Palestinians, closing Washington PLO mission

AFP-JIJI

The United States announced Monday it will shutter the Palestinian mission in Washington, adding further pressure on them to enter peace talks with Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert accused the Palestine Liberation Organization of refusing to support negotiations while a Palestinian official called the move a “dangerous escalation” of tensions in the region.

“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,” said Nauert.

“However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” Nauert said.

“To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise,” she said.

The announced closure was the latest move by President Donald Trump to push the Palestinians into peace talks, toward what the U.S. president has termed the “ultimate deal.”

But the Palestinians have accused the Trump administration of being one-sided in its approach.

“This is yet another affirmation of the Trump administration’s policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people, including by cutting financial support for humanitarian services including health and education,” PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

The move to not grant the mission its normal six-month renewal came after Palestinian leaders allegedly breached the arrangement by calling for Israeli officials to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Nauert cited that bid as one reason for shuttering the PLO mission. But she stressed the need for the Palestinians to join U.S.-backed peace negotiations.

“The United States continues to believe that direct negotiations between the two parties are the only way forward. This action should not be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement,” she said.

The Palestinian leadership cut off contact with the Trump administration after the president recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.

Trump has since pledged to withhold aid from the Palestinians until they return to the negotiating table.

The decision on the PLO mission comes just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the first Oslo accord on Sept. 13, which was famously sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn and raised hopes of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Husam Zomlot, head of the PLO mission in Washington, told journalists in Ramallah that the closure was “to protect Israel from war crimes, crimes against humanity that Israel is committing in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Both Erekat and Zomlot pledged to push forward with Palestinian efforts at the ICC, where the chief prosecutor has already opened a preliminary probe into the allegations.

In recent weeks, the United States has cut more than $200 million in bilateral aid to the Palestinians as well as canceled its support for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

In making such moves, Trump has sided with Israel on core issues in the conflict without publicly asking for any concessions in return.

Palestinian leaders see his White House as blatantly biased in favor of Israel.

“Part of it is bullying,” Zomlot said in response to a question about the U.S. strategy.

“But the main part of it is just going ahead and implementing the grocery list that was submitted to them by (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.”

The Palestinians have asked the ICC to investigate Israel on issues ranging from settlement building in the occupied West Bank to civilian casualties in the 2014 Gaza war, among others.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki visited the ICC in May and called on it to open an immediate investigation.

Despite having opened a preliminary probe in 2015, the tribunal has yet to move to the next stage and open a full-blown investigation which could lead to charges being brought.