January 2020 Monthly Forecast

MIDDLE EAST

Middle East (Israel/Palestine)

Expected Council Action

In January, the Security Council is expected to hold its quarterly open debate on the Middle East, focusing on Israel/Palestine. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is likely to brief.

Key Recent Developments

The last period has been marked by much political uncertainty concerning Israel/Palestine issues. On 18 November 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the US position on Israeli settlements. “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate…the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law”, he told a press conference. The Secretary-General’s spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric stated the next day in response to press inquiries that the UN “very much regrets” this announcement and that the UN’s position has not changed. Additionally, the ten elected Council members appeared at a press stakeout after the Council’s meeting on 20 November 2019 responding to the issue. Jürgen Schulz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany, reiterated the elected members’ support for international law regarding the illegality of the settlements. He also repeated their collective concern about the possible annexation of areas in the West Bank. This comes on the heels of several announcements in 2019 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would annex all Israeli settlements located in Palestinian territories if he won the election and a specific promise that he would annex the occupied Jordan Valley in the West Bank.

However, despite holding two elections in less than six months (most recently on 17 September 2019), Israel still does not have a government. Since the first 2019 election, held in April, Netanyahu’s Likud party has been engaged in a tight bid for power with the Blue and White Alliance, led by Benny Gantz, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a former Netanyahu ally. In December 2018, Gantz established a new political party, Israel Resilience, which, along with the Blue and White Alliance in which it plays a leading role, is considered a more centrist option to the right-wing Likud. He has heavily criticised Netanyahu’s role in three separate corruption cases and on 19 September seemingly ruled out any possibility that Blue and White would serve in a coalition with Netanyahu, though the alliance has left open the possibility of a secular unity government with Likud but without Netanyahu. There have also been reports that Netanyahu and Gantz might alternate the post of prime minister as a compromise. Since attempts by both groups to form a coalition failed, however, the country’s politics have been at a standstill. On 11 December 2019, President Reuven Rivlin announced that, as a result of the inability of the leaders to form a coalition, a historic third election was necessary. It will most likely be held on 2 March 2020.

Until the next elections are held and a new government is formed, the country will continue to be led by Netanyahu in a caretaker role. Further complicating matters, Netanyahu was indicted on 21 November 2019 on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It is unclear if Netanyahu is legally able to run for the post of prime minister under these circumstances, although Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office even if indicted. There has been pressure on Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to issue a ruling on whether an indicted candidate can compete, which had not been made at press time.

Preparations have begun for the Palestinian Authority to hold its first parliamentary and presidential elections in 14 years. Parliamentary elections could happen as early as February 2020, with presidential elections to follow three months later. During the opening of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced general plans for elections. However, several challenges remain, particularly the need for logistical plans and ongoing discussions about how to hold elections in Gaza given the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in Ramallah.

The Council discussed the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, during its regular monthly meetings in November and December 2019, along with the quarterly open debate in October 2019. Mladenov briefed at all three sessions. He repeatedly warned the Council in these meetings that there were “new dangerous flashpoints” emerging on this file, as he said during the October open debate. He also underlined the continued humanitarian challenges in Gaza and the ongoing settlement issue. His concerns about increasing tensions were underscored by 48 hours of what he described during the November meeting as “the most serious recent escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza”. During that period, Islamic Jihad launched around 450 rockets at Israel, while Israeli strikes against Islamic Jihad targets killed a senior leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Baha Abu al-Ata, and more than 30 other Palestinians, including three women and eight children.

On 18 December 2019, the Council received its quarterly briefing on the implementation of resolution 2334 of December 2016, which condemned Israeli settlements. Mladenov presented the Secretary-General’s written report, only the third since resolution 2334 was adopted. The report showed that no steps had been taken to cease settlement activity. In the report, the Secretary-General stressed his concern, noting the overall increase in approved settlements, incidents of settler violence, the worrying humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the need for Egyptian-led intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts to continue.

Human Rights-Related Developments

In a 15 November 2019 statement, the special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, Michael Lynk, applauded the 12 November 2019 ruling by the European Court of Justice, which held that food products produced by Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory must indicate that they originate from a settlement and not be described as a “product of Israel”. In a 19 November 2019 statement, Lynk said the US announcement that Israeli settlements do not violate international law “is a decisive break with international consensus, and will only further entrench the perpetual Israeli occupation”. He added that the decision was “the very last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution” and that it “effectively grants permission to the Israeli government to formally annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, as it has already done with East Jerusalem”.

Key Issues and Options

The Council remains stalled on the Israel/Palestine issues because of its internal divisions. Apart from the scheduled monthly meetings, Council members could choose to hold an Arria-formula meeting or an informal interactive dialogue to highlight specific issues facing the region. This was done in May 2019 when an Arria-formula meeting was held on Israel’s construction of settlements. Viet Nam, as president of the Council for January, could also invite a civil society representative to brief during the open debate, as was done twice in 2019, in April and November.

The same chief issues are likely to continue to be discussed by Council members: the blockade against Gaza, concerns about the Gaza humanitarian situation, the importance of progress on the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process, and the viability of the two-state solution in the current political and security context.

Council and Wider Dynamics

There are deep divisions between the US and other members of the Council on the Israel/Palestine issues. Several Council members have criticised US actions, such as moving its embassy to Jerusalem and tacitly supporting Netanyahu’s statements about annexation of the Jordan Valley. More broadly, with the upcoming elections in Israel, Palestinian Authority and the US, some members may want to await their outcomes before making policy decisions. The lack of international consensus even on previously agreed parameters only heightens the complexity.

Indonesia, Kuwait and South Africa have emerged as a strong, like-minded group to push for increased discussion and outcomes on this issue, focusing especially on promoting the rights and needs of Palestinians. With Kuwait leaving the Council and its seat being taken by Tunisia, this dynamic may change. (The seat reserved for Arab countries alternates between the Asian and African geographic groups.)

UN DOCUMENTS ON THE MIDDLE EAST (ISRAEL/PALESTINE)

Security Council Resolutions
23 December 2016S/RES/2334 This was a resolution that condemned Israeli settlements and was adopted with 14 votes in favour and a US abstention.
Secretary-General’s Reports
12 December 2019S/2019/938 This was the third written Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2334, relating to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Security Council Meeting Records
20 November 2019S/PV.8669 Nickolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and Tania Hary, Executive Director of
Gisha, Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, briefed at this meeting of the Council.
28 October 2019S/PV.8648 This was one of the quarterly open debates on the Palestinian question. Nickolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed via videoteleconference from Jerusalem.