The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Expected Council Action
In late October, the Security Council expects to hold its quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
The Security Council last held a meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 27 September. Wennesland provided an oral report on the implementation of resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016, covering developments between 15 June and 19 September. Among other issues, Wennesland said that the Secretary-General remained “deeply troubled by the unrelenting expansion of Israeli settlements”, with more than 10,000 units advanced during the reporting period alone. He said that the demolition and seizure of Palestinian structures entail numerous rights violations and “raise concerns about the risk of forcible transfer”. He added that the Secretary-General was “gravely concerned by the intensification of violence in the occupied West Bank and Israel, at levels not seen in decades”. Wennesland also condemned all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, and said that “Israel must act to stop all settler violence”.
In recent months, the US has conducted diplomatic outreach to advance an agreement on the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia in exchange for the signing of a US-Saudi defence treaty and a civil nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia facilitated by the US, among other things. It is unclear how an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel may affect Saudi Arabia’s position on the Arab Peace Initiative, which was proposed by Riyadh in 2002, endorsed by the League of Arab States (LAS) that year, and re-endorsed by the LAS in 2007. It stipulates that a comprehensive peace and normalisation of relations with Israel must be preceded by an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN General Assembly resolution 194, which said, among other things, that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to so”.
While it is not yet apparent what benefits, if any, the Palestinians would receive from an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, according to media sources, the Saudi leadership has been “very attentive” to the requests of a Palestinian delegation that visited Riyadh in early September “in a bid to halt the prospect of an unconditional normalization agreement”. These requests reportedly include:
- the transfer of parts of West Bank territory currently under full Israeli control to the complete control of the Palestinian Authority;
- a cessation of Israeli settlement advancement in the West Bank;
- full UN membership for the Observer State of Palestine; and
- the reopening of the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, which was closed during the administration of former US President Donald Trump.
On the sidelines of the high-level segment of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Saudi Arabia, the LAS, and the EU, in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, hosted a ministerial-level forum on 18 September, titled “the Peace Day Effort”, to discuss ways to revive the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. A joint statement issued by the forum’s organisers noted that “the Peace Day Effort” seeks to produce a “Peace Supporting Package” that “will maximize peace dividends for the Palestinians and Israelis once they reach a peace agreement”, and to elaborate “detailed programmes and contributions, conditional upon achieving a final status agreement” to that end.
In a 20 September televised interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “the Palestinian issue is very important” for Saudi Arabia but also that “every day, we get closer” to a normalisation agreement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the 78th UNGA general debate on 21 and 22 September, respectively.
In a likely reference to the possible deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Abbas said that “[t]hose who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate and national rights would be mistaken”. He called for an international peace conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking UN Secretary-General António Guterres to undertake the necessary arrangements to convene such a conference and adding that it could be “the last opportunity to salvage the two-state solution”. Abbas demanded protection for the Palestinian people from “the constant aggression of the occupation army and terrorist Israeli settlers”. He also called for the Observer State of Palestine to be granted full UN membership.
Netanyahu focused his speech on the agreements that normalised relations between some Arab states and Israel and on the role of Iran in the Middle East. He said that “we are at the cusp of […] an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia”, which would go “a long way in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict”, adding that such an agreement could be reached under the leadership of US President Joe Biden. He warned, however, about what he referred to as “the fanatics ruling Iran” who “would do anything they can to thwart this historic peace”. Regarding the role of the Palestinians in the context of the normalisation agreements, Netanyahu said that he believes that the Palestinians must not be given “a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states”.
The Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) met on the sidelines of the UNGA high-level segment on 20 September. (The AHLC is a 15-member committee that coordinates development assistance to the Palestinian people at policy level and is chaired by Norway.) The report prepared for the AHLC meeting by the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) outlined several immediate steps to reverse current negative trends. These include addressing key territorial and security issues—including those related to settlements and violence—through “[s]erious political talks” and the restoration of “mechanisms that facilitate more regular and sustained contacts between both sides”.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas met with Guterres in New York. On 20 September, Netanyahu held a meeting with Biden, while Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh met with US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr on the sidelines of the AHLC meeting on 21 September.
Human Rights-Related Developments
In an 8 September statement, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) said that it will conduct its first visit to the State of Palestine from 10 to 21 September to evaluate the measures undertaken to “protect people deprived of liberty from torture and ill-treatment”. The SPT delegation will also provide assistance in establishing a national preventive mechanism (NPM), a monitoring body that all States parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture must establish. In the statement, the head of the delegation, Daniel Fink (Switzerland), noted that the delegation will meet authorities at the highest levels and will visit detention facilities, interviewing detainees and staff.
Key Issues and Options
According to a recent policy brief by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “[t]hirty years after the Oslo accords, Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory is entrenching open-ended conflict and what is increasingly recognised as apartheid”, while the prospects of wider regional destabilisation and a third intifada are on the rise “amid expanding Israeli military raids, growing settler violence, and the resurgence of Palestinian armed groups”.
Against this backdrop, the overarching issue for the Security Council remains to determine how it can support the resumption of political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to move towards a resolution of the conflict and achieve a two-state solution. Deterring developments that further undermine the viability of the two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict—such as the expansion of Israeli settlements, forced evictions and demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, and the altering of the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem—is also a key issue. The deteriorating security situation and violence against civilians remain important matters of concern for Council members.
As mentioned by Ambassador Ferit Hoxha (Albania) at the press briefing on the plan of work for the Security Council for the month of September, Council members are considering a visiting mission to the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. A visiting mission could be an option to generate momentum and complement efforts to revive political talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Besides demonstrating the Council’s support for the resumption of the peace process, a key objective of the visit could be to show a unified stance against any further undermining of the viability of the two-state solution. This would be the first Council visit to the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.
A visiting mission might also expose Council members first-hand to the extent of the humanitarian need and the consequences on the ground of the suspension of support delivered by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the absence of a political solution. UNRWA is chronically underfunded, and funding shortages for WFP “have already resulted in the suspension of food and cash assistance for 200,000 Palestinians, most of whom live in Gaza, with another 150,000 Palestinians at risk of having their assistance suspended in October”, according to UNSCO’s AHLC report.
There is broad rhetorical support among Council members for the two-state solution. With varying degrees of emphasis, members also routinely call for an end to settlement activity and demolitions and condemn violence against civilians, including acts of terror and settler-related violence. Nevertheless, Council dynamics have precluded effective action in response to the non-implementation of its resolutions and a shared strategy to prevent the further deterioration of the situation.
The US appears to be of the view that the current circumstances are not ripe for the restart of the peace process and is instead investing its diplomatic capital in initiatives such as the normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the meetings of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Egypt, and Jordan in Aqaba and Sharm El Sheikh.
At the 27 September Security Council briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, some members referred to the possible normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia as a positive development. The UK argued that it is “unabashed in encouraging more countries to normalise their relationships with Israel”, but that it is “also committed to making sure that normalisation delivers concrete benefits for the Palestinian people”. Russia—which in previous meetings has accused the US of blocking the Council’s adoption of any substantive decision on the Middle East peace process and the efforts of the Middle East Quartet—said that the US “continues to promote an Arab-Israeli normalisation circumventing the logic of the Arab Peace Initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and predicated on first resolving the Palestinian question” before restoring relations with Israel, adding that these actions undermine the “prospects for reviving direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis”.
UN DOCUMENT ON THE MIDDLE EAST, INCLUDING THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION
|Security Council Resolution|
|23 December 2016S/RES/2334||This resolution condemned Israeli settlements and called for immediate steps to prevent violence against civilians, including acts of terror. It was adopted with 14 votes in favour and a US abstention.|