The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
The Security Council expects to hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” in January. A high-level UN official will brief.
Key Recent Developments
On 15 November 2020, the Israeli government announced that it was commencing bidding for the construction of more than 1,200 new housing units in the Givat Hamatos settlement in eastern Jerusalem. Nickolay Mladenov, then Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, issued a statement the following day in which he called for the decision to be reversed, adding that it “would significantly damage prospects for a future contiguous Palestinian State and for achieving a negotiated two-State solution based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states”. He also reiterated the UN’s view of the illegality of settlements under international law.
0n 10 December, Morocco agreed to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, becoming the fourth member state of the League of Arab States to initiate a rapprochement with Israel in 2020, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. Following the announcement of Morocco’s decision, Moroccan King Mohammed VI called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to assure him of Morocco’s continued commitment to the two-state solution. Among the Arab countries, Israel also has diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, established in 1979 and 1994, respectively. Also on 10 December, the US agreed to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, the disputed territory also claimed by the Polisario Front. (The Security Council established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara [MINURSO] in 1991 in an effort to resolve this dispute.)
According to OCHA, by 14 December 2020 Israeli authorities had demolished 815 Palestinian structures—defined as “residential, livelihood-related, service-related or part of infrastructure”—in 2020 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This represents the second-highest annual figure since OCHA began keeping such statistics in 2009, topped only by the number of such demolitions in 2016.
The two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, held reconciliation talks in Istanbul, Turkey, from 22 to 24 September 2020 and in Cairo, Egypt, from 16 to 18 November. Fatah announced that the two parties had agreed to hold Palestinian legislative and presidential elections following the Istanbul discussion, but the parties reportedly could not agree on a timetable for the elections during the Cairo meetings. Hamas has run the Gaza Strip since it took control of the territory during armed conflict with Fatah in June 2007; Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
On 17 November 2020, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would resume cooperation with Israel on security and civilian matters. This cooperation had been severed in May 2020 in light of the Israeli government’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank, a move that Israel agreed not to carry out as part of its normalisation agreement with the UAE. The resumption of cooperation with Israel will once again allow the Palestinian Authority to receive tax revenue that Israel collects on its behalf. On 13 December, Ismail Haniya, the chair of the Hamas Political Bureau, criticised the Palestinian Authority’s decision to resume cooperation with Israel and said that it would be detrimental to intra-Palestinian reconciliation.
In a virtual address to the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2020, Palestinian President Abbas called for an international conference in early 2021—to be undertaken by the UN Secretary-General “in cooperation with the [Middle East] Quartet [the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US] and the Security Council”—to resolve “all final status issues”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly, virtually as well, on 29 September. He said that Israeli’s normalisation of relations with Arab states—the UAE and Bahrain at that point—would increase the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, maintaining that “Palestinian leaders will increasingly realize that they no longer have a veto over peace and progress in our region”.
The Council held its monthly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” on 21 December 2020. Mladenov briefed on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 2016—which condemned Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and acts of violence against civilians—and other recent developments.
On 21 December 2020, Tor Wennesland was appointed Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He succeeds Nickolay Mladenov, whose term as Special Coordinator was expected to end on 31 December 2020. Wennesland most recently served as Norway’s special envoy for the Middle East Peace Process.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 19 November 2020, two UN experts on human rights (Michael Lynk, the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, and Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing) condemned the Israeli government’s demolition of the homes and property belonging to a Palestinian Bedouin community in the northern Jordan Valley of the West Bank. The experts noted that Palestinian homes and structures in the West Bank built without a permit are regularly demolished but observed that “the Israeli planning regime in the occupied territory is discriminatory and restrictive, and rarely grants Palestinian applications for building permits”. The experts expressed particular concern that secure housing is one of the “ultimate protections” against the COVID-19 pandemic and “deliberately creating a homeless population” during an international health catastrophe is a “serious human rights blemish on any State authority responsible for such acts”.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is what role it can play in resurrecting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, given the widespread rejection of the Trump administration’s peace proposal in 2020, including by the Palestinians. The new US administration is unlikely to support Trump’s peace proposal, possibly creating space in the Council (and in other relevant fora) to discuss other options. One avenue that has been proposed by a number of Council members—and could be further explored—has been to revitalise the Middle East Quartet. A related option would be to expand the Quartet as a forum for negotiations by allowing other states in the region to participate in a mediating capacity. Council members could also further explore the proposal made by President Abbas for an international peace conference in early 2021.
Another key issue is how the Council can support intra-Palestinian reconciliation. A statement encouraging Hamas and Fatah to continue their dialogue and engage with each other in good faith could be considered. If this is politically untenable, then different regional or other sub-groups within the Council could consider issuing joint statements in support of reconciliation.
The widespread position in the Security Council—and among the UN membership more broadly—is that settlement construction is a violation of international law, that the occupation of Palestinian territories should end, and that the resolution to the conflict should be centred on a two-state solution, based on the pre-June 1967 borders, with land swaps agreed mutually by the parties.
US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on 20 January 2021. While the US will continue to be Israel’s strongest advocate in the Council under the new administration, it is likely to be less accommodating than the Trump administration to the positions of the current Israeli government. In this regard, the Biden administration is likely to be critical of settlement expansion and express support for the two-state solution.
Incoming member Norway has historically played an important role in the Middle East peace process. It chairs the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), which coordinates the delivery of international aid to the Palestinian Authority; the AHLC was established in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo I Accord.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE MIDDLE EAST, INCLUDING THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION
|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.|
|16 December 2020S/2020/1234||This report was on the implementation of resolution 2334.|