As the U.S struggles to bring Israelis and Palestinians together at the negotiation table, some in the U.S. are debating whether or not a Palestinian delegation should even be allowed in Washington.
Over the last few weeks since the State Department announced it was upgrading diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, a controversy was ignited in Washington and elsewhere over whether the Obama administration had gone too far or not far enough.
On July 20, the State Department sent a letter to Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, the Chief of the PLO Mission to the United States, stating that the U.S. had granted the upgrade to a “general delegation.” The U.S. does not allow a full embassy because it does not recognize a Palestinian state.
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Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said much of the media coverage overstated the move because “The news stories reporting that the United States has upgraded the Palestinian Authority office in Washington are in error, for there is no PA office.”
He explained, “There is a PLO office, one which requires a waiver twice each year to exist because of the PLO’s past links to terrorism.”
Abrams, often credited as one of Washington’s most powerful neoconservatives, pointed out that, according to the United Nations, the PLO is “the ‘sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people,’ but (even just considering the support for Hamas) it is clear that that is untrue.”
Abrams suggests that, instead, “The PLO represents the ghost of Yasser Arafat plus the salaries of a whole bunch of his cronies.”
In something of a provocative proposal, Abrams suggested that it would “be better to close the PLO office than to upgrade it, and substitute a PA office, for any current and future Palestinian political development – the newly trained police, the elections, the improved finances – will take place through the PA.”
But Aaron David Miller, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said the State Department is on the wrong path, yet again.
“Who cares?” said Miller, a former negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian peace for the State Department.
“Neither closing the PLO mission in Washington nor upgrading it would make the slightest bit of difference in shaping, let alone determining the future or fate of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or American interests in the Middle East,” according to Miller, the author of The Much Too Promised Land; America’s Elusive Search For Arab-Israeli Peace.
“Once again, we’re getting sidetracked by procedural, diplomatic issues that really don’t matter,” said Miller.
“If you want to worry about something important,” said Miller, “worry about how you can have a serious peace process when you have a Palestinian national movement which is a Hamas-Abbas Palestinian humpty dumpty; how you’re going to relocate tens of thousands of unhappy, angry Israeli settlers from the West Bank; or solve the galactically complex problem of Jerusalem.”
Despite multiple attempts to obtain a statement from the Palestinian mission, none was made available to Truthout.
As for the State Department, it appeared to downplay the significance of the move almost as quickly as the decision was made.
Speaking to a group of reporters, State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley said, “There has been no change in the status of the Palestinian mission here in Washington.”
He further insisted that the Palestinian mission has no “diplomatic privileges or immunities” and that the U.S. decision was the result of a direct request from the Palestinian mission.
Crowley did admit, however, the decision was in direct relation to “the improvement in the relations between the United States and Palestinians.”
The Obama administration has struggled with how to encourage the Palestinians with improved diplomatic relations and financial incentives, while also appearing to remain faithful to its special relationship with Israel.
According to Crowley, the primary results of the U.S. decision has been to fly the Palestinian flag and permission to call themselves the General Delegation of the PLO – “A name that conforms to how they describe their missions in Europe, Canada, and several Latin American countries.”
Crowley went so far as to say that these moves are only of “symbolic value” and not substantive value for the Palestinians. Ultimately, “their status as a mission has not changed.”
Not all U.S. responses have tiptoed around the difficult position, however.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, strongly objected to the State Department’s decision.
In an issued statement, Ros-Lehtinen suggested it was well overdue that the State Department expel the Palestinian mission from the U.S., saying the “U.S. rewards [the] corrupt, autocratic PLO with more symbols of legitimacy, treating it like a sovereign state.”
Ros-Lehtinen further said, “Instead of giving more undeserved gifts to the PLO, it’s time for us to kick the PLO out of the U.S. once and for all, and move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, where it belongs.”
Ros-Lehtinen was the author of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which conditioned U.S. assistance to the Palestinian leadership upon compliance that it renounce and combat violent extremism, abide by its existing agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
With Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), Ros-Lehtinen has also sponsored the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act (H.R. 3412), which would recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel; express that all Israeli citizens should have the right to reside anywhere in Jerusalem; and require the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be relocated to Jerusalem by January 1, 2012.
As ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen stands to become the Chair of the committee, if the Republicans pick up enough seats in the November elections and is expected to pass the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, if she becomes the chair.