By Bryant Harris September 13, 2018
A frayed flag fluttered in the dreary Washington sky over the Palestinian mission as employees huddled inside away from prying TV crews on Monday.
Just hours before, the Donald Trump administration had announced its intention to close the Palestine Liberation Organization's mission to the US capital. A security guard distributed a statement to the media and said both the mission’s public affairs officer and congressional liaison were gone.
The mission, which reported $1.46 million in expenses in the 12 months to March 31, serves as the PLO’s main conduit to Capitol Hill and the American public. After years of losing the public relations battle to the formidable pro-Israel lobby, its closure represents Trump’s latest blow to the Palestinians in a year of unyielding setbacks that President Mahmoud Abbas has referred to as “coercive diplomacy.”
Since December, the Palestinians have been boycotting senior-level contacts with US officials after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And in May, Abbas recalled Palestinian Husam Zomlot to Ramallah after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and high-level US officials attended a ritzy inauguration ceremony for the Americans' $21.5 million temporary embassy in Jerusalem.
Trump has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table by cutting the vast majority of aid for the West Bank and Gaza while ending US funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
“We’re afraid this administration will do lasting and irreversible harm that we will be stuck with for the rest of our lives,” a source close to the PA told Al-Monitor. “We’re unable to send the ambassador back until something changes in a positive manner.”
Specifically, the Palestinians want Trump to unambiguously commit to a two-state solution in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as the capital. The official argued that otherwise, “You would be returning to bad conditions. You can’t create a crisis and return as a savior.”
Well aware of the Palestinian struggle to compete with the Israeli narrative in the decades-long conflict, Zomlot had gathered Christian allies for a meeting at the PLO office last November, hoping to bolster public support by emphasizing the West Bank’s rich religious heritage.
“Something you have to help us with … is the Christian dimension of America,” Zomlot said at the meeting. “It’s a huge dimension of America, and I must tell you we have not won that battle.”
As part of the plan, the PLO planned to hold a December event dubbed “A Bethlehem Christmas on the Hill” with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and administration officials. But on the eve of the reception, Trump made his Jerusalem announcement, prompting the Palestinians to cancel.
In addition to its consular and public outreach duties, the PLO has been actively engaged with Congress in trying to defend the Palestinian position. The Washington office has previously relied on Democratic lawmakers in particular to push back against the Trump administration’s aid cuts.
“We meet with anyone who wants to meet with us; it’s just that Democrats want to hear both sides of the issue,” said the source close to the PA, noting that some have even criticized the embassy move. “Public opinion is changing. There’s major disillusionment with the Trump-Netanyahu alignment.”
Separately, the Palestine Monetary Authority paid the law firm DLA Piper $584,000 last year to provide “assistance with compliance with anti-money laundering and economic sanctions laws and regulations” and strengthen the central bank’s relationship with the US government and correspondent banks. The PA’s Ministry of Finance and Planning, meanwhile, paid the law firm Squire Patton Boggs $246,000 for advice on “developments within the US Congress and the US administration to the provision of US aid.”
Long a diplomatic bargaining chip, US assistance has become nakedly political under Trump.
“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted shortly after his Jerusalem announcement and the ensuing PLO backlash. “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Shortly thereafter, the State Department withheld $65 million in funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), more than half the annual US contribution, before ending the United States' annual $390 million contribution entirely in August. As a result, the agency was forced to lay off hundreds of employees throughout the Gaza Strip in July, triggering mass protests.
And while the State Department has requested $251 million in 2019 aid for the West Bank and Gaza, the same amount as the current fiscal year, it announced last month that it is cutting more than $200 million in economic aid.
Meanwhile, several Democratic lawmakers have called on the State Department to clarify the status of the aid review — so far, to no avail. Even though hard-line Republicans have long argued for cutting UNRWA aid, charging that the organization has been co-opted by Hamas, 70 House Democrats penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton in July warning against the cuts.
“The cut to [UNRWA] will unnecessarily exacerbate the humanitarian and security issues in this region,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter followed a similar admonition from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 12 other senators in May.
Nevertheless, Congress dealt the PA a major bipartisan setback by mandating further aid cuts as part of a spending agreement earlier this year. The Taylor Force Act requires the State Department to cut off aid that “directly benefits” the PA unless it ends its practice of providing stipends to Palestinians accused of attacking Israelis.
At the same time, however, Congress at least sought to shield humanitarian aid from the cuts.
“We already litigated this in the Taylor Force Act,” a congressional staffer told Al-Monitor. “The clear intent of Congress was to protect the humanitarian aid.”
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