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WASHINGTON: The United States announced on Monday it will shutter the Palestinians’ mission in Wash­ington, adding further pressure on them to enter peace talks with Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Heath Nauert accused the Palestine Liberation Organisation of refusing to support negotiations while a Palestinian official called the move a “dangerous escalation” of tensions in the region.

“We have permitted the PLO office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between Israelis and the Palestinians since the expiration of a previous waiver in November 2017,” said Nauert.

“However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” Nauert said.

“To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise,” she said.

The announced closure was the latest move by President Donald Trump to push the Palestinians into peace talks, towards what the US president has termed the “ultimate deal”.

But the Palestinians have accused the Trump administration of being one-sided in its approach. “This is yet another affirmation of the Trump administration’s policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people, including by cutting financial support for humanitarian services including health and education,” PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

The move to not grant the mission its normal six-month renewal came after Palestinian leaders allegedly breached the arrangement by calling for Israeli officials to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Nauert cited that bid as one reason for shuttering the PLO mission. But she stressed the need for the Palestinians to join US-backed peace negotiations. “The United States continues to believe that direct negotiations between the two parties are the only way forward. This action should not be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement,” she said.

The Palestinian leadership cut off contact with the Trump administration after the US president recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. Trump has since pledged to withhold aid from the Palestinians until they return to the negotiating table.

The decision on the PLO mission comes just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the first Oslo accord on Sept 13, which was famously sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn and raised hopes of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In recent weeks, the United States has cut more than $200 million in bilateral aid to the Palestinians as well as cancelled its support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2018