A recent State Department internal memo to Secretary Blinken calls for “Resetting the US relationship with the Palestinian…leadership.” [I wrote about that memo here.] One aspect of that reset appears to be a reopening of the PLO office in Washington, which was closed by the Trump administration in 2018.
The existence of that office always required a special waiver from the U.S. government because of PLO support for terrorism. In 2018, the Trump administration refused to exercise the waiver. The office was that of the PLO, not the Palestinian Authority, because the PLO is supposed to handle all international affairs and represent Palestinians abroad.
The State Department memo said “we [the US] suffer from a lack of connective tissue following the 2018 closure of the PLO office in Washington and refusal of Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership to directly engage with our embassy to Israel.” And the acting U.S. envoy to the United Nations recently told the Security Council that the Biden administration “intended to take steps to reopen diplomatic missions that were closed for the last US. Administration.” This likely refers both to the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which was placed under the authority of the U.S. Embassy to Israel when the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to the PLO mission in Washington.
That won’t be so easy, and it’s a mistake to undertake the effort.
It won’t be easy because it seems to be unlawful. As The Algemeiner reported, “A Biden adviser told Reuters just before the Nov. 3 election that Biden would seek to reopen the PLO mission to Washington but added: ‘There is a law that could make that more challenging.’” Yes indeed; that’s the Taylor Force Act. The Act, named after an American soldier murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in 2018, states that the PA and PLO will be liable for damages awarded by a jury if they open offices in the United States or make payments to Palestinians terrorists being held in Israeli prisons.
It is quite clear that such payments continue. The Washington Free Beacon reported that:
In a non-public State Department report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, the administration said the Palestinians spent at least $151 million in 2019 on its "pay-to-slay" program, in which international aid dollars are spent to support imprisoned terrorists and their families. Financial statements further indicate that at least $191 million was spent on "deceased Palestinians referred to as ‘martyrs.’"
How the administration plans to get around the Taylor Force Act, and why it believes it is sensible and moral to do so, remain unclear. It is certainly not necessary to put aid through the PA to help Palestinians, as the administration itself proved just this week. On March 25th the State Department made this announcement:
The U.S. government is pleased to announce $15 million in humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing these funds to address the most urgent, life-saving humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza. With this assistance, USAID is supporting Catholic Relief Services’ COVID-19 response efforts in health care facilities and affected communities throughout the West Bank and Gaza. This assistance is also supporting emergency food assistance programming in communities facing food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It seems that food and medicine are being provided directly to the populace by Catholic Relief Services without any PA involvement—and therefore without violating U.S. law. Unless and until the PA stops its “pay for slay” payments to convicted terrorists and their families, that’s how help for Palestinians should be provided: through reputable NGOs and international organizations and without handing any funds to the PA. The administration should in fact be worrying more about how to help Palestinians and less about rebuilding “connective tissue” to the PA and PLO leadership—which is viewed as incompetent and corrupt by millions of Palestinians.
There is another reason that opening a PLO office right now would be a foolish and untimely step. Right now, Hamas and Fatah are negotiating over the Palestinian elections planned for May 22nd. Hamas has one key goal, which is to become part of the PLO. It may also become part of the PA government. Hamas and Fatah have even discussed presenting a joint list of candidates, though that is apparently not in the cards.
Will the administration actually open an office in Washington for the PLO now, when its newest member after the May elections may be Hamas? What is the sense in that? If Hamas joins the PLO, it should be inconceivable for the administration to exercise the terrorism waiver and allow such representation in Washington.
Hamas’s participation in the PLO would have much wider implications than its impact on a PLO office in Washington. It is a terrorist group actively engaged in attacking Israelis, it receives support from Iran, and it has always opposed and rejected the Camp David accords and instead stuck to its goal of a Palestine “from the river to the sea.”
On March 15, a group of experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy issued a statement about those Palestinian elections, Hamas, and the Biden administration:
[I]t is important that the PA know that the United States will refuse to engage with a government that fails to require its officials to renounce violence and commit to peaceful resolution of conflict. The principle of ballots or bullets—not ballots and bullets—is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Washington should not run the risk that the PA fails to appreciate the potential implications of its actions.
This is very good advice. This is what the Biden administration should be saying, instead of leaving the impression that it is anxious to re-open a PLO office in Washington.