The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted the Palestine Liberation Organization's diplomatic mission Tuesday for raising its would-be national flag over its Washington offices, but the State Department sought to downplay any significance in the action.
The Palestinians made the symbolic gesture as they continue a push for international recognition that is complicating the Obama administration's efforts to restart stalled Mideast peace talks.
"Raising this flag in D.C. is part of the Palestinian leadership's scheme to manipulate international acceptance and diplomatic recognition of a yet-to-be-created Palestinian state while refusing to directly negotiate with Israel or accept the existence of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
"I remain deeply disappointed that the Palestinian leadership continues to reject the opportunity to negotiate directly and in good faith with the Israeli government to resolve all outstanding issues and achieve security and peace," she said in a statement. "Instead, Palestinian leaders reject negotiations, they make excuses and they seek shortcuts to statehood."
At a brief ceremony, the Palestinian's chief envoy to the United States, Maen Areikat, hoisted the red, green, white and black banner outside the PLO General Delegation office. He expressed hope it would help in the Palestinian quest to win support for independence with or without a peace deal with Israel.
"We are proud to see the flag," Areikat said. "It's about time that this flag that symbolizes the struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination and statehood is raised in the United States. We hope that this will help in the international efforts to provide recognition for the Palestinian state."
The envoy acknowledged the flag-raising has no practical effect for U.S. policy, but said it was an "important, significant step" toward seeking recognition from the United States and others. He said he hoped the Obama administration would move to recognize an independent Palestine, something the U.S. has said it will not do until there is a negotiated peace deal with Israel.
Palestinian statehood is "an international interest, a U.S. interest and in the interest of all the parties in the Middle East," Areikat said.
The PLO office has had permission from the State Department to fly the flag since last August, when the mission was upgraded from a representative office to a general delegation, but had been awaiting permission from the building's owner before displaying it, he said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said raising the flag does not change the status of the diplomatic mission in the U.S.
The U.S. opposes any unilateral Palestinian move to establish statehood, but several other nations, notably in Latin America, have recently recognized Palestine, and the Palestinians are seeking broader support to bring statehood before the U.N. in September.
Ros-Lehtinen criticized the U.S. for providing unconditional support to the Palestinians.
"The U.S. has reinforced Ramallah's rejectionism through economic and political support, including support for the PLO office in Washington, instead of requiring that they meet all conditions in U.S. law," she said. "Governments worldwide will interpret such actions as tacit U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state. These actions send precisely the wrong message to foreign governments."
Meanwhile, Palestinian representatives are continuing to push for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel for ongoing settlement activity in the West Bank.
Combined with the push for international recognition, the resolution puts the administration in a difficult position. The United States is opposed to the construction of Israeli housing settlements, but at the same time does not want to endorse a resolution that is critical only of Israel, its main Mideast ally.
U.S. officials are grappling with whether or not to veto the resolution should it come to a vote in the council. Crowley said Tuesday that the U.S. doesn't think the U.N. is the right forum for the resolution.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the administration to oppose the U.N. resolution.
"A resolution of this nature would work against our country's consistent position, which has been that this and other issues linked to the Middle East peace process can only be resolved by the two parties negotiating directly with each other," Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter signed by 16 of her colleagues.
"Attempts to use a venue such as the United Nations, which you know has a long history of hostility toward Israel, to deal with just one issue in the negotiations, will not move the two sides closer to a two-state solution, but rather damage the fragile trust between them," she wrote.