Middle East (Israel/Palestine)
Expected Council Action
In April, the Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly open debate on “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Adjustments to Council working methods caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 may alter the format of the meeting, however. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov may brief.
Key Recent Developments
On 28 January, US President Donald Trump held a press conference at the White House to announce his plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan is officially titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”. Notable elements include:
- the incorporation of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and East Jerusalem into the state of Israel;
- Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel;
- Palestinian statehood to be contingent upon the fulfilment of several conditions determined by Israel, such as the renunciation of violence and the disbanding of militant groups such as Hamas;
- the territory of the future Palestinian state to include the Gaza strip, parts of the West Bank, and some neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem;
- the linking of these different parts of a Palestinian state through new roads, bridges and tunnels;
- the Palestinian capital to be located “in the section of East Jerusalem…in all areas east and north of the existing security barrier”;
- a minimum four-year freeze in Israeli settlement construction, with existing settlements allowed to remain;
- $50 billion in international investment, supplied by international donors mostly from among Arab nations, to build a new Palestinian state;
- a US embassy in the new Palestinian state; and
- the preservation of the status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
The Palestinian Authority, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the League of Arab States, and the AU Commission Chairman, among others, rejected the plan.
Indonesia and Tunisia circulated a draft resolution on 4 February that would have reiterated the Council’s support for international parameters to resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. The initial draft, which would most likely have been vetoed by the US, strongly regretted “that the plan presented on 28 January 2020 by the United States and Israel breaches international law and the internationally-endorsed terms of reference for the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. In addition, it reiterated the various UN resolutions and initiatives that call for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. The draft was revised, following input from some members, and put under silence until 10 February. The US broke silence with a number of amendments, and the UK proposed further consultations on the draft. Subsequently, the penholders decided to postpone the vote to allow more time for consultations. At the time of writing, it remained unclear if Council negotiations on the text would resume.
The Security Council held a briefing on 11 February at the request of Tunisia and Indonesia that focused on the US peace plan. Secretary-General António Guterres made introductory remarks, and Mladenov provided the briefing. Guterres reiterated the commitment of the UN to the two-state solution, with “Israel and Palestine…living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 lines”. Mladenov also reaffirmed this position, adding that absent “a credible path back to negotiations, we all face a heightened risk of violence…that will drag both peoples and the region into a spiral of escalation with no end in sight”. During the meeting, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority said of the US peace plan, “This deal dictates its own terms and the entrenchment of occupation, annexation by military force and the strengthening of the obsolete apartheid regime that has now returned to Palestine”. Questioning Abbas’ interest in peace, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, who spoke after Abbas, said that the plan offered a starting point for negotiations.
The Council held its monthly meeting on “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 24 February. Mladenov briefed, describing the difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza and adding that the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) continued to confront significant funding obstacles. His briefing was followed by consultations.
For nearly a year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had 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 and a former Netanyahu ally. On 2 March, the third Israeli elections since April 2019 ended inconclusively. However, while citing the need for unity in light of the possible national crisis facing Israel with the outbreak of COVID-19, Gantz agreed on 26 March to join Netanyahu in forming a unity government that leaves Netanyahu as prime minister. At time of writing, the deal under discussion envisions Netanyahu retaining his post for 18 months, followed by an 18-month term for Gantz as prime minister.
In late February, in the lead up to the 2 March elections, the Israeli government approved the construction of thousands of homes for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Netanyahu had said that Israel would annex all Israeli settlements located in Palestinian territories if he won the election.
On 18 March, Philippe Lazzarini was appointed the Commissioner-General of UNRWA. He most recently served as Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon in the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon.
In a video message on UNRWA’s website on 20 March, Matthias Schmale, the Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, appealed to donors for materials such as hand sanitising gel, medicines, and protective equipment for health workers to help the area confront a potential COVID-19 outbreak. Almost 2 million people live in Gaza, which is densely populated and has a fragile health care system.
On 30 March, Council members convened an informal videoconference meeting on the situation the Middle East, including the Palestinian question. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov briefed. Council members issued press elements in which they welcomed ongoing Israeli-Palestinian coordination to address COVID-19. The meeting had originally been scheduled for 26 March as a briefing followed by consultations, but it was postponed and the format was changed due to the impact of COVID-19 on the Council’s working methods.
Human Rights-Related Developments
During its 43rd session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) considered on 26 February the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights titled “Ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” (A/HRC/43/21). The report, covering 1 November 2018 to 30 October 2019, concluded that the period under review was characterised by “a persistent failure to ensure accountability for allegations of excessive use of force by the Israeli security forces in the context of the large-scale protests in Gaza and law enforcement operations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem”. The HRC also considered the report of the High Commissioner on “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” (A/HRC/43/67).
Key Issues and Options
The recent Israeli approval of increased settlement construction remains an important issue and will likely be addressed in this month’s meeting. Other long-standing issues that may be raised in the meeting include the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the prospects for intra-Palestinian reconciliation, the demolition of Palestinian civilian structures in the West Bank, and the firing of rockets into Israel from Gaza. One new issue that may be discussed is how Israeli and Palestinian authorities are coordinating to address the spread of COVID-19 and preparations for a potential outbreak of the virus in the Gaza strip. On 18 March, a telephone conversation took place between Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on coordination regarding the response to the spread of COVID-19. Since then, Israeli authorities have taken steps to transfer testing kits and medical equipment into the Gaza strip.
The Dominican Republic, as president of the Council for April, could consider inviting a civil society representative to brief during the open debate—as was done twice in 2019, in April and November. Possibilities could include a human rights activist to discuss the likely human rights implications of the approval of additional Israeli settlement construction or a health expert to brief on needs and strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
During April’s meeting, members could also choose to discuss ways to revitalise the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, given the rejection of the US peace proposal by the Palestinians.
Deep divisions persist on this issue in the Council between the US and other members. Since President Donald Trump came to office in 2017, the US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, and declared that Israeli settlements are “not, per se, inconsistent with international law”, according to a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an 18 November 2019 press conference.
While the US has traditionally been staunchly pro-Israel, these decisions represent a shift in policy that is even closer to Israel. Other members support a position in line with that of the UN, calling for a two-state solution in line with pre-1967 borders; this view was widely reiterated during the Council meeting on 11 February. During the same meeting, a number of members—France, Germany, Indonesia, South Africa and Vietnam—referenced resolution 2334 (2016), which declares that Israeli “settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967” have “no legal validity” and constitute “a flagrant violation under international law”. By calling for the incorporation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, into the state of Israel, the US peace plan directly contradicts resolution 2334. Several members remain concerned that continued settlement construction undermines the potential for a two-state solution.
UN Documents on the Middle East (Israel/Palestine)
|Security Council Resolution|
|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.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|24 February 2020S/PV.8730||On 24 February, the Council received its regularly scheduled briefing, followed by consultations. Following consultations, the president of the Council read press elements that had been agreed on by Council members.|
|11 February 2020S/PV.8717||On 11 February, the Council held a briefing to discuss Israel and Palestine with the attendance of Secretary-General António Guterres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, and UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov.|