The US State Department confirmed Monday it was ordering the closure of the Washington mission of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, a move the Palestinians denounced as a “dangerous escalation”.
"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 State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
"However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel."
The decision was another play from US President Donald Trump aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to negotiate with him and his Middle East advisers on a much-vaunted peace plan that the American leader has termed the “ultimate deal”.
But the Palestinians have cut all contacts with Washington, citing a series of decisions made by Mr Trump that they say favour Israel, most importantly the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem announced in December that gave US recognition to the contested city as Israel’s united capital.
The State Department accused the leadership of condemning “a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise”. The Palestinians have said they would reject any US peace proposal after the embassy move. They seek East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as the capital of any future Palestinian state.
Palestinian officials criticised the decision as another betrayal that effectively ends Washington’s role as an impartial mediator in the decades-long conflict. Officials in Ramallah said the decision came after they stepped up their campaign against Israel at the International Criminal Court, where they have sought a war crimes investigation into Israeli policies.
"We have been notified by a US official of their decision to close the Palestinian mission to the US," Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary-general Saeb Erekat said in a statement.
"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."
US National Security Adviser John Bolton was expected to defend the decision in a speech on Monday and reiterate the Trump administration’s strong commitment to Israel.
The PLO was once considered a terrorist organisation by the US and Israel until 1991. But since the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and sealed with a White House lawn handshake between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the body has served as the Palestinian representation at the negotiating table in any peace talks.
Under US law adopted by Congress in 1980s, the PLO mission was barred from establishing an office in Washington DC. Former President Bill Clinton waived that law in 1994, allowing the office to open with a six-month renewal period signed off by the sitting US President. In a status upgrade in 2011, former President Barack Obama allowed the PLO mission to fly the flag over its office located on Wisconsin Avenue.
The Trump administration had threatened to close the mission in November and the head of the Palestinian mission in Washington, Husam Zumlot, had for months been rendered a forlorn figure in the Capitol until he was recalled in December.
Mr Zumlot told reporters in Ramallah that the decision was taken by the US to “protect Israel from war crimes, crimes against humanity that Israel is committing in the occupied Palestinian territories”.
The Palestinians have embarked on what has been termed a “diplomatic intifada,” asking the war crimes court to probe Israel for a range of international human rights violations, including killing hundreds of civilians in the 2014 Gaza War and continued illegal settlement building in the West Bank.
Since the embassy move, the Trump administration has failed to condemn the continued construction of illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank, the territory the Palestinians want as part of any future state, and it has cut all funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinians refugees, causing the worst crisis in its existence.
Observers said the decision would fail to bring the Palestinians to negotiate with Mr Trump and his advisers, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.
Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the decision is “not irrelevant” but “will not achieve its stated objective of bringing the Palestinians to negotiations”.
Mr Al Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, told The National that the decision “is a further symbolic escalation in Palestinian-American relations, and that is not irrelevant.”
“Practically speaking however, not much will change. On the one hand, Palestinian-US relations have been frozen and the PLO representative had left Washington since the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem last December.”
Others, including former US State Department and White House official Robert Danin called the move “disingenuous”.
Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow with the Security Studies group, a think tank close to the Trump administration, said the closure is a “price for the Palestinian leadership's obstructionism” in negotiating with Washington.
"They have made clear their intentions to avoid any process led by the Trump administration…there's no reason the Trump administration should keep their office open in Washington," he told The National.
The Palestinians have said they will not buckle to Mr Trump's pressure and will continue to push on with their bid for an ICC investigation against Israel. The war crimes court launched a preliminary probe in 2015 into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, in which the Israeli military killed more than 2,200 Palestinians. But it is yet to open the door on a full-blown investigation that may see charges brought against Israeli officials.