Middle East Open Debate & Briefing by Secretary-General on Israel/Palestine
Tomorrow (22 October), the Security Council will convene for the quarterly open debate on the Middle East, with Spain’s foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo presiding over the ministerial-level meeting. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is expected to brief.
The situation in Israel/Palestine is likely to dominate the open debate in the context of continuing and escalating levels of tension and violence. Tomorrow’s ministerial-level debate follows a briefing in consultations earlier this afternoon (21 October) by the Secretary-General via video teleconference from Amman. Ban had asked for an emergency meeting of the Council in order to brief members on the situation in Israel and Palestine following his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the last two days.
In remarks to the press during his visit, Ban emphasised that Israelis and Palestinians stand on the brink of another catastrophic period of violence and that only negotiations that produce visible, meaningful results would end the conflict. It seems that during his briefing to Council members today, Ban presented a very pessimistic picture of the current situation and stressed the need to restablish dialogue and create the conditions for meaningful negotiations toward a two-state solution. He also highlighted the importance of addressing the situation at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem as a first step and focused on the importance of stopping the situation from escalation into a religious conflict. It seems that he largely focused on short-term issues like the need to cease the violence and inflammatory rhetoric on both sides.
During the monthly Secretary-General’s lunch on 13 October, apparently Ban challenged Council members to find a better way of working on this important international peace and security issue. Following the Secretary-General’s briefing today, it is possible that some members might be encouraged to make stronger statements on the situation and how the Council should be addressing it.
Last Friday (16 October), at Jordan’s request, the Council received a briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun on the escalation of tensions in Israel/Palestine. During the meeting France mentioned that it had a draft presidential statement that appealed to all parties to show calm and restraint, but also to maintain the status quo at the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem. Although it seems that most elected members were not aware that France had a draft prior to the meeting, New Zealand, Venezuela and Angola expressed support for such a statement in their remarks.
However, at press time, the draft presidential statement had not been circulated. It seems that besides calling for the cessation of violence, the draft requested the Secretary-General to provide options regarding a temporary international observer presence at the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound, called for the circulation of a report regarding the protection of all civilians and reaffirmed Israel’s responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Conventions. Today the president of the Council (Spain) circulated a letter from the Secretary-General (S/2015/809), which contained a report of a review by the Secretariat on the historical precedents for the administration of territory by the League of Nations and the UN. While this is not an options paper, it may be used by Council members who are interested in pursuing a system of protection for the Occupied Palestinian Territory further.
The draft text was discussed amongst the P5 and Jordan, with the US and Jordan reportedly expressing opposition. It seems the US initially signalled flexibility in moving towards the adoption of a presidential statement while expressing concern over any reference to an international presence. However, it was reluctant to move forward ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with Netanyahu in Berlin tomorrow and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday and Kerry’s forthcoming visit to the region for talks with the Jordanians and Palestinians. Jordan’s position was made clear by its ambassador, Dina Kawar, at a press stakeout following the Council meeting on 16 October. She said that the possibility of an international protection force at Al-Aqsa “is not on the menu of discussion now” and that Jordan (the historic custodian of the compound) was instead calling for a return to the status quo. Meanwhile, Israel has publicly rejected any possibility of the presence of an international protection force. In light of Israel and Jordan’s positions, it seems the US is now less inclined to support the text, even with the exclusion of reference to an international presence. It remains unclear at this point if France will continue discussions with the P5 and Jordan to try and reach agreement.
In addition, some Arab countries apparently had been interested in getting the Council to consider a draft resolution which would call for the deployment of UN observers or a UN protection force at Al-Aqsa mosque and in East Jerusalem and demanding Israeli security forces withdraw from flashpoint areas. However, it seems this proposal was superseded by the French initiative.
Regarding tomorrow’s open debate, it seems Russia and the US have different opinions about the focus of the debate. Apparently Russia voiced a preference for the Middle East Peace Process to be the main item given the escalating tension in Israel/Palestine. It appears the US feels the focus should be on the situation in Syria, as this is the first Council debate on the Middle East since Russia began airstrikes in Syria on 30 September. Other member states are expected to be listening carefully to the statements from Russia and the US to gauge if there might be an opening for any Council action on these two issues in the near future.