WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Obama administration will allow the PLO office in Washington to fly the Palestinian flag and assume the title of "delegation."
The change in status comes with no enhancement in diplomatic status, U.S. officials said.
The new privileges for the Palestine Liberation Organization office do not mean the representation has "any diplomatic privileges or immunities," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last Friday.
"At the request of the PLO representative, which we have granted given the improvement in the relations between the United States and Palestinians, they have requested permission to fly the Palestinian flag," he said. "And they have requested permission to call themselves the General Delegation of the PLO, which is a name that conforms to how they describe their missions in Europe, Canada, and several Latin American countries."
Crowley said the steps have symbolic value and reflect improved relations between the United States and Palestinians, but they have no meaning under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
A White House spokesman suggested the changes would help spur the Palestinians toward direct peace talks with Israel, a key demand of the Israeli and U.S. governments.
"This decision reflects our confidence that through direct negotiations, we can help achieve a two-state solution with an independent and viable Palestine living side by side with Israel," Tommy Vietor said. "We should begin preparing for that outcome now, as we continue to work with the Palestinian people on behalf of a better future."
PLO representation in Washington was made illegal under a number of laws in the mid 1980s, when the group was widely regarded as terrorist.
Since 1993, at the launch of the Oslo peace process, U.S. presidents have exercised their prerogative to waive the ban every six months. Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have cultivated the PLO and its leadership of the Palestinian Authority as a means of stemming the influence of Hamas, a radical Islamist terrorist group.
A number of lawmakers have sought to reinstate the ban, saying the Palestinian Authority has not moderated enough, citing among other factors the Palestinian refusal to enter direct negotiations.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the ranking member on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, tied her efforts to eject the PLO from Washington to congressional efforts to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another law that presidents have routinely waived since its passage in 1995.
"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," she said in a statement.