Palestine–United States relations
This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (January 2011)
|TBD||Head of the Palestinian Affairs Unit Mike Hankey|
However, relations between the U.S. government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as the U.S.-recognized representative of the Palestinian people, have existed from the 1970s onward. The PLO was represented in Washington by a General Delegation until October 2018. The U.S. government does not have any official representative office within Palestinian National Authority areas but has a Palestinian Affairs Unit within the US Embassy in Jerusalem which handles relations with the Palestinian Authority.
- 1 Relations prior to 1988
- 2 Relations, 1988–2012
- 3 Following the Palestinian statehood resolution, 2012–present
- 4 PLO heads of mission
- 5 Notes
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Relations prior to 1988
At the time the PLO was established in 1964, it did not receive any official attention from the U.S. government. However, an unofficial PLO information office was established in New York and was run by Sadat Hassan, who served as Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations.
U.S. plans and considerations of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began already in June 1967, immediately following the Six-Day War. In parallel with this consideration, various US officials began considering making various Palestinian groups partners in the diplomatic process to arrive at a settlement. However, no actual step was taken in that regard as the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger opposed such moves.
Prior to the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, the U.S. government considered The PLO and Fatah under Yasser Arafat's leadership as a terrorist organization, and as a result did not support Palestinian aspirations at the UN, and U.S. diplomats in the Middle East were explicitly ordered by the State Department never to make any contacts with Arafat or any representative on his behalf. However, despite the negative view of the PLO, State Department officials began to view the Palestinian factor as crucial enough to be taken into consideration when brokering an Israeli-Jordanian agreement on the West Bank. In contrast to the negative diplomatic view of the PLO, the intelligence community did not refrain from clandestine contacts with that entity, and as early as October 1970, a senior Fatah representative delivered the CIA message about willingness by Arafat to recognize the State of Israel in exchange for US support of a Palestinian state. This trend of clandestine contacts produced some tangible results following the Yom Kippur War. On November 3, 1973 a secret meeting was held in Morocco between Deputy Director of the CIA Vernon A. Walters and Khaled al-Hassan, number two in the PLO at the time, and the two discussed the possibility of integrating the PLO into the peace process. Even though no tangible agreement was reached at that meeting, it led to restraint of Fatah attacks on U.S. targets.
From 1974 onward, some circles in the Department of State were considering accepting the PLO as partner in the Middle East peace-process. In June 1974, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Herman Eilts assessed that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was looking for ways to integrate the PLO into the peace process. U.S. President Gerald Ford even alluded to that possibility in his news conference of October 29, 1974. At another press conference, on November 14, 1974, Ford made a non-committal statement on U.S. position towards the PLO by saying:
The Israelis have said they will never negotiate with the PLO. We are not a party to any negotiations. I think we have to let the decision as to who will negotiate to be the responsibility of the parties involved.
However, due to U.S. support of the Israeli government Washington agreed in 1975 to demand PLO explicit recognition of the State of Israel as a precondition to any dealing with its representatives. Referring to this, Ford said at a news conference on November 26, 1975:
the Palestinians do not recognize the State of Israel. And under those circumstances, it is impossible to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together to negotiate. So, unless there is some change in their attitude, I think you can see a very serious roadblock exists.
As the PLO did not make such recognition explicitly at that time, the U.S. government refrained from any official relations and the PLO was not allowed to maintain any offices on U.S. soil, except for the PLO Mission to the United Nations, which is immune from U.S. law.
A certain change of attitude took place under President Jimmy Carter. Carter was the first U.S. president to advocate the creation of a Palestinian state, which he did at a meeting held in Clinton, Massachusetts on March 16, 1977:
There has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.
In addition to Carter's pro-Palestinian positions, the PLO leadership attempted to reach an agreement with the US government. In January 1978, Arafat delivered a secret message to President Carter, stating he would settle for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for US support of that objective. The administration's relatively positive position on the PLO also allowed that organization to establish on May 1, 1978 the Palestine Information Office in Washington DC. However, no real progress on the Palestinian issue was made under Carter, as he was preoccupied with reaching an Israeli-Egyptian agreement, and contacts with PLO were detrimental to that agreement.
A harsher stance towards the PLO was taken by President Ronald Reagan. The Republican party platform approved in 1980 stated that:
Republicans reject any call for involvement of the PLO as not in keeping with the long-term interests of either Israel or the Palestinian Arabs. The imputation of legitimacy to organizations not yet willing to acknowledge the fundamental right to existence of the State of Israel is wrong. [- - -] We believe the establishment of a Palestinian State on the West Bank would be destabilizing and harmful to the peace process.
President Reagan continuously opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state or negotiating with the PLO. In September he made a proposal for a Palestinian autonomy under Jordanian supervision. Even though the plan did not call for any PLO participation, some PLO circles viewed this as a possible sign that the Reagan administration might consider an accommodation with the PLO at a later date.
An attempt to close down the Palestine Information Office was made following the passage of the Anti Terrorism Act in December 1987. This act proclaimed the PLO a terrorist organization and prohibited all of its activities except for disseminating information. Reagan then stated:
I have no intention of establishing diplomatic relations with the PLO.
The U.S. government attempted to close down the Palestine Information Office on grounds that it was involved in terrorist activities, but various courts in the United States ruled against this line of action, but allowed a stricter supervision of the office's activities.
In addition, Reagan downplayed the outbreak of the Intifada, viewing it a foreign import into the Palestinian Territories rather than an expression of the Palestinian popular rebellion.
The Ronald Reagan administration
Following the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in November 1988, the PLO officially recognized Israel, and an open dialogue began between the PLO and the U.S. government.
The George H.W. Bush administration
The dialogue continued during the early months of President George H. W. Bush. The U.S.-PLO dialogue was suspended in June 1990, following PLO refusal to condemn an attempted attack on the Israeli coastline by the Palestine Liberation Front. The Bush administration had continued to have negative views about the PLO also following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf war, and when asked at a press conference immediately after the Gulf War about a possible dialog with the PLO, Bush stated:
to me, they've lost credibility. They've lost credibility with this office right here. And the reason they have is because they behaved very badly to those of their own fundamental faith.
However, the Bush administration made tremendous efforts throughout 1991 to convene a general Middle East peace conference, which included also the Palestinian issue. In a news conference in early August, Bush stated:
In the Middle East, we're close to convening a conference this October that will launch direct talks among Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab States. I welcome Prime Minister Shamir's statement that he supports our proposal, and I call upon Israel and the Palestinians to clear away remaining obstacles and seize this truly historic opportunity for peace.
Bush's efforts culminated in the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, which for the first time accepted an official Palestinian delegation, even though without open PLO participation.
The Clinton administration
The inauguration of President Bill Clinton altered the official U.S. attitude towards the PLO. He himself supported the goal of a Palestinian state, but refrained from expressing this in public until the closing months of his administration.
On September 10, 1993, the eve of the signing of the Oslo Agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO, President Clinton announced the resumption of the U.S.-PLO dialogue, suspended in 1990. The signing ceremony of the Oslo Accord on September 13, 1993 was held in Washington D.C. in the presence of Clinton, even though negotiations for the agreement took place under the auspices of the Norwegian government. Following that ceremony, Arafat became a regular visitor to the White House, the first Palestinian leader to be accorded that honor. The U.S. government also became more involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and invited both parties to come to Washington at certain occasions in order to push forward the peace process. This way, the Clinton administration brokered the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire agreement of October 1996, and in October 1998, Clinton brokered an agreement on Israeli further redeployment in the West bank.
The Clinton administration also assisted materially to the formation of the Palestinian Authority by hosting the first donor conference for that purpose, held in Washington DC on October 1, 1993. In October 1993, Congress passed the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1993, which authorized the U.S. government to monitor PLO compliance with international law.
Following the Oslo Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994, the PLO office was upgraded and renamed as the PLO Mission to the United States.
The U.S. government took an active part in lending technical assistance in building the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. On March 30, 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the allocation of $4,000,000 for the construction of the Palestinian police, and on March 16, 1995 ordered additional $5,000,000 to be allocated towards the same purpose. In July 1995, U.S. Congress passed the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1995, which authorized the President to withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority in cases of what it viewed as incompliance with commitments made to the Israeli government under the Oslo Agreement. In December 1998, President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to visit the Palestinian Authority.
The George W. Bush administration
U.S. attitudes towards the Palestinian Authority changed following the inauguration of President George W. Bush. President Bush refrained from meeting Arafat, and refrained from referring to him as "President Arafat", as Palestinian officials insisted, but only as "Chairman Arafat". During the first year of his administration, Bush maintained relations with the Palestinian Authority on the technical level only. Following another round of violence in the Palestinian territories, in June 2002 Bush expressed support for a Palestinian state following a process of negotiations. On June 3, 2003, Bush met for the first time Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas at a multilateral conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, a format of meeting designed to avoid a direct meeting with Arafat, now viewed negatively by Bush and the Israeli leadership. On July 25, 2003, Abbas visited the White House for the first time. At that meeting, the two leaders established the Palestine Economic Development Group, a high level joint American-Palestinian committee to overlook economic ties.
Following Arafat's death in November 2004, the new Palestinian president Abbas became a regular visitor to the White House. Bush now referred to him in official communications as "President" instead of "Chairman", as was done with Arafat. Abbas visited the White House while receiving the honors of a head of state on six different occasions:
- May 26, 2005.
- October 20, 2005.
- November 26, 2007.
- April 24, 2008.
- September 25, 2008.
- December 19, 2008.
During the visit of May 26, 2005, Bush stated his support for the parameters of the Palestinian state:
Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice Lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity on the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza. This is the position of the United States today; it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations.
In relation to internal structure of the Palestinian Authority, Bush supported the Israeli demand for holding new presidential elections in January 2005 and parliamentary elections in January 2006. In January 2008 President George W. Bush visited the Palestinian Authority.
The Obama administration
Relations improved following the inauguration of President Barack Obama. From the beginning of his administration, Obama pledged his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Abbas visited the White House on May 28, 2009, June 9 and September 1, 2010 and March 17, 2014.
In July 2010 the Palestinian mission was upgraded and renamed PLO General Delegation to the United States.
In December 2010, the U.S. government and the Palestinian Authority launched a joint project in information technologies capacity building.
During Fiscal Year 2011, U.S. government gave the Palestinian Authority $200 million in direct budget support.
Tension in U.S.-Palestinian relationship
Throughout 2011, relations worsened as a Palestinian initiative sought UN membership for the PA, and as the U.S. government backed Israel's opposition to PA membership and return to negotiations.
The Associated Press reported that in October 2011, a group of about 30 Palestinian protestors "accosted an American diplomatic delegation visiting the West Bank," in response to the possible termination of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.
In November 2012, on the eve of the UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, the Palestinian Authority sent an appeasing message to the U.S. Congress, asserting the move was not contradictory to international law. At the UN General Assembly vote on admitting Palestine as an observer state, the U.S. voted against the resolution.
Following the Palestinian statehood resolution, 2012–present
The Obama administration
Following the passage on November 29, 2012 of the UN General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, some U.S. Senators called for a closure of the PLO Delegation in the United States of America. Head of the Delegation Maen Areikat published an open letter stating that closure of the Delegation would only worsen U.S. position in the Middle East. In March 2013, Obama visited the Palestinian Authority for the first time as a President. In addition, Vice President Biden has visited the Palestinian Authority twice.
The Trump administration
The Trump administration began with a general stance of support for Israeli positions. On May 3, 2017, Palestinian President Abbas visited the White House for the first time during the Trump administration. On May 23, Trump visited the Palestinian Authority for the first time.
On December 6, 2017, President Trump announced the U.S.'s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump's move was praised by Benjamin Netanyahu who declared that it is a "historic landmark". According to Mahmoud Abbas, Trump's decision indicates the withdrawal of the US from its mediation role. Trump's decision was condemned by traditional US allies such as Saudi Arabia, France, and the U.K.
On September 10, 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington D.C., citing the PLO's lack of progress in the peace process. US National Security Adviser John Bolton defended the decision. PLO ambassador Dr. Husam Zomlot condemned the Trump Administration's decision to close the Palestine mission. The mission was closed on October 11, 2018.
On October 18, 2018, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem would be merged into the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Pompeo announced that the US would continue to conduct relations with the Palestinians through a special Palestinian Affairs Unit inside the Embassy. This announcement was criticized by Palestinian officials including Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat as an endorsement of the Israeli claim to Jerusalem and "Greater Israel." 
On March 4, 2019, the Consulate-General ceased operating as an independent mission and was revamped as the Palestinian Affairs Unit, which will report to the Embassy. In response, Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO's Executive Committee called for the international community to boycott the new Palestinian Affairs Unit, regarding it as a "downgrade" and "assault" on the peace process. Another Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi claimed that the merger of the Consulate General into the Embassy represented an assault on Palestinian rights and identity.
PLO heads of mission
The PLO office in Washington DC was headed by the following:
- Hatem Hussieni (1978–1982)
- Hassan Abdel Rahman (1982–1991)
- Anees Barghouti (1991–1993)
- Hassan Abdel Rahman (2nd time, 1993–2005)
- Afif Safieh 2005–2008
- Nabil Abu Zneid (Charge D'Affaires, 2008–2009)
- Maen Rashid Areikat (2009–2017)
- Husam Zomlot (2017–2018)
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