Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has begun to use “State of Palestine” on all official documents, stationery, and stamps. This is “to implement the resolution of General Assembly of the UN on Nov. 29 to recognize Palestine as a non-member state,” according to the official Palestinian news agency.
There is a Palestinian office in Washington—but it represents the PLO, not the “State of Palestine” or the Palestinian National Authority that governs the West Bank and receives millions of dollars in American aid. That PLO office is doing most of the things an embassy does. According to its web site, it has a “Government Affairs” department that “is responsible for strengthening the relationship between the PLO and the US Government’s Executive branch,” a “Congressional Affairs” department that is “in charge of reaching out to and building relations with both the House and Senate,” and media, public affairs, and community outreach offices. The key difference is the name: “PLO Delegation” rather than “Embassy of Palestine” or “Palestinian National Authority Delegation.”
Why not have a “State of Palestine” embassy? Simple. There should not be an “Embassy of Palestine” because the United States does not believe there is today a “State of Palestine.” American policy is that there should some day be such a state, but as the product of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that conclude a final status agreement.
Then why not be happy with the status quo, a PLO office? First, the PLO is a group with a long terrorist history. Second, even today the PLO Charter (1968) is filled with pernicious nonsense about “the basic conflict that exists between the forces of Zionism and of imperialism on the one hand, and the Palestinian Arab people on the other,” and relies on concepts like “commando action,” the “Arab masses,” and “popular liberation war.” Its outlook is summed up in this line: “The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void. Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood.”
All of this led Congress in 1987 to forbid a PLO office:
It shall be unlawful…. Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, to establish or maintain an office, headquarters, premises, or other facilities or establishments within the jurisdiction of the United States at the behest or direction of, or with funds provided by the Palestine Liberation Organization or any of its constituent groups, any successor to any of those, or any agents thereof.
As Congress permitted, that provision has been waived repeatedly by President Obama (as it had been by Presidents Bush and Clinton), and in 2010 he even upgraded the PLO office’s diplomatic status. But that was before the UN General Assembly magically turned the “non-state observer” called the PLO into the “non-member state” called Palestine. That event ought to give us pause, and lead us to re-think whether a PLO rather than PNA office is a good idea.
In addition to the PLO’s historic baggage and its offensive Charter, a third reason to stop dealing with the PLO is that it is a non-democratic body. The PNA is theoretically a democratic one whose leadership is chosen through popular elections. Of course that’s highly theoretical, because the last national elections were held in 2006 and the terms of the entire parliament and of President Abbas expired long ago. Still, isn’t accepting the hypocrisy of the PNA about democracy preferable to honoring the unreformed, hopelessly compromised PLO, in whose Charter the word “democracy” does not even appear?
It isn’t as if doing so would contravene the practices of the Palestinians themselves. Back home in Ramallah, the foreign minister hasn’t been calling himself “Foreign Minister of the PLO.” Rather, his web site says he is “Foreign Minister of the Palestine National Authority” and the PNA’s main web site says the same thing. Moreover, under the Palestinian “Basic Law,” the PNA president and not the PLO chairman “is the Commander-in-Chief of the Palestinian Forces,” “shall appoint and terminate the services of the National Authority’s delegates to foreign countries, international organizations and foreign agencies,” and “shall accept the credentials of foreign delegates to the Palestinian National Authority.”
No doubt there are contradictions here: the PNA was established under the Oslo Occords with jurisdiction only over domestic affairs. The language of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement outlining the structure of the new PNA specifically said its “jurisdiction does not include foreign relations.” Perhaps for that reason the Palestinian official theoretically charged with negotiating with Israel, Saeb Erekat, is not a PNA official: he is still called the head of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department (whose web site makes it clear that it is a PLO, not a PNA, body). Some of those contradictions may become even more convoluted now, with the Palestinian leadership proclaiming a “State of Palestine.” Perhaps the foreign minister will now be called “Foreign Minister of the State of Palestine” rather than “Foreign Minister of the Palestine National Authority,” and perhaps there will be an effort to change the names of all the overseas delegations from “PLO” to “State of Palestine.”
Meanwhile, some members of Congress have been trying to force the closing of that PLO office in Washington. After that UN vote in late November, Senators Schumer, Graham, and Barrasso tried unsuccessfully to insert amendments to the defense spending bill to close the PLO office, and in December the outgoing and incoming chairmen and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the President asking him to do the same. Of course, these members of Congress are not suggesting substituting a “State of Palestine” embassy or a PNA office for the PLO office—just closing the PLO office down.
But it would be foolish today to permit no Palestinian representation in Washington. Our officials deal with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad every day, and the PNA (not the PLO) governs the West Bank and receives millions of dollars in American aid. We view the PNA (not the PLO) officially as the embryonic government of the future Palestine. But it is long past time to stop issuing the waivers, to close the PLO office, and to deal straightforwardly with the PNA.
If “reconciliation” brings Hamas back into the PNA’s structures, U.S. government lawyers may conclude in 2013 as they did in 2006 that the PNA is controlled by a terrorist group. All aid would likely be suspended then as a matter of law as well as a matter of policy. That would be the moment to close the office entirely. Now’s the time to end the PLO official presence here.