Monthly Middle East Briefing
Tomorrow (17 September) Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, is scheduled to deliver the regular monthly briefing on the issue to the Security Council. The briefing, which will be followed by closed consultations, will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and how its prospects are affected by current direct talks, the atmosphere on the ground, and by increasingly precarious regional developments.
US-brokered peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians resumed on 14 August at an undisclosed Jerusalem location. While Serry is likely to give an assessment of status of the talks, given the confidential nature of the negotiations he will not substantively brief on them. Details on the subject matter and progress of the talks have been kept secret, as both parties have agreed to refrain from revealing information in an effort to increase the chances of success. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the only actor authorised to comment on the talks, has largely refrained from doing so.
While there has been little official information from the talks, leaks from senior Palestinian officials, both named and unnamed, have revealed Palestinian frustration at the absence of US mediation as some believe that direct US involvement, which Israel objected to, is necessary for progress. Kerry has met with leaders from both sides in bilateral meetings- with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on 9 September in London and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on 15 September- but there is no seat for the US at the negotiations. Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said he did not expect any progress in the absence of “powerful American pressure”. Israel, which has strictly adhered to the agreement to not disclose details of the negotiations, has declined to comment on the remarks. Some Council members may want Serry to elaborate on this issue.
With the opening of the General Assembly next week some members may be interested in Serry’s assessment of whether with the Palestinians growing increasingly frustrated at the process, they are likely to pursue other avenues in the event that talks prove fruitless. It seems that the US had hoped that restarting peace talks well ahead of the upcoming UN General Assembly would ensure that the Palestinians would be content with the US-brokered track and refrain from pursuing any major action alongside the high-level meetings of the General Assembly.
During his briefing on the situation on the ground Serry is likely to touch on Israeli settlement activity, which remains one of the most contentious issues. In late August Israeli officials approved plans pushing forward the construction of 1,500 homes in a settlement in East Jerusalem. Despite appeals by Kerry against the move, Palestinian negotiators in August threatened to sue Israel through UN organisations if it continues to expand Jewish settlements.
Several recent incidents have underscored the volatility of the situation on the ground, and Serry is likely to brief on these events and their impact on the talks. On 27 August Palestinian leaders reportedly cancelled a round of peace talks after three Palestinians were killed in a deadly clash between Palestinian refugees and Israeli forces at the Qalandia refugee camp near Jerusalem- the deadliest such altercation since 2009. A spokesman for Abbas said the incident could have “negative repercussions” on the peace process. On 4 September Israeli forces surrounded Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem after it was reportedly stormed by Jewish groups with Israeli forces subsequently arresting several Palestinian worshippers. Most recently, on 12 September clashes erupted when Palestinians began hurling stones at Joseph’s Tomb in the northern West Bank as some 1,400 Jewish worshipers gathered for prayers at the site. Israeli troops fired tear gas which led to the Palestinians shooting at the troops who returned live fire wounding at least seven Palestinians.
While Serry’s briefing will focus on Israel-Palestine, he may delve into wider regional issues which affect the peace process, such as the increasingly precarious situation in the northern Sinai, where Islamist militants have stepped up their campaign against the state since the 3 June ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian military has responded by intensifying its campaign against the insurgency, which it believes to be supported my militants from Gaza. Several recent developments have stoked tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Hamas and the Egyptian government. Today Abbas called on Egypt to reopen the Rafah border crossing with Gaza after six days of closure following a deadly car bomb explosion at a military intelligence facility in Rafah on 11 September. Also following the execution of 25 Egyptian police in Rafah on 19 August several militants were arrested, five of whom were found to be members of Hamas. On 1 September Egyptian security forces reportedly destroyed more than a dozen homes along the border with Gaza in what appeared to be an effort to build a buffer zone to reduce weapons smuggling and illegal militant crossings. Egypt has also intensified efforts to close tunnels along the border. In late August Israel reportedly urged the US to support the Egyptian government in its fight against militants, warning that losing Egypt to Islamists would endanger the peace process.
While Serry is not expected to spend much time on Syria during the briefing it is possible that during the consultations that follow some Council members may raise questions and want a fuller discussion on the impact of recent developments in Syria on the Israel-Palestine peace process.