Middle East (Israel/Palestine) Open Debate
Tomorrow (21 January) the Security Council is expected to hold its quarterly open debate on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question. Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, and Ursula Mueller, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, are expected to brief.
During his last several briefings to the Council, Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov has re-emphasised the challenges facing the Middle East peace process, such as: the blockade of Gaza, the lack of progress on the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and continued violence between the parties. In December, the Council received its quarterly briefing on the implementation of resolution 2334 of December 2016 which condemned Israeli settlements. Mladenov presented the Secretary-General’s written report, only the third since resolution 2334 was adopted. The report showed that no steps had been taken to cease settlement activity and expressed deep concern about the “continued demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures”. According to media reports, in January 2020, 97 structures that had been built using EU or EU member states’ donations were wrecked or seized in 2019, which amounted to a 90 percent increase from 2018. The Secretary-General’s report also expressed concern about ongoing violence. In this regard, it stated that the “launching of rockets and mortars and its indiscriminate effect on Israeli civilian population centres is prohibited by international humanitarian law, and Palestinian militants must cease this practice immediately”.
DiCarlo is likely to express concern about continued Israeli settlement activity, and members are expected to reiterate their positions on this issue. On 18 November 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the US position on Israeli settlements, stating that the US believes that they are “not, per se, inconsistent with international law”. The Secretary-General’s spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric stated the next day in response to press inquiries that the UN “very much regrets” this announcement and that the UN’s position has not changed. Additionally, the ten elected Council members appeared at a press stakeout after the Council’s meeting on 20 November 2019 responding to the issue. Jürgen Schulz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany, reiterated the elected members’ support for international law regarding the illegality of the settlements. He also repeated their collective concern about the possible annexation of areas in the West Bank.
The Israeli and Palestinian elections, both expected in 2020, may be discussed in the meeting. Due to the failure to form a government after two successive elections in 2019, on 11 December 2019, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin announced that a historic third election would be held on 2 March 2020. Since the first 2019 election, held in April, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has been engaged in a close race with the Blue and White Alliance, led by Benny Gantz, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a former Netanyahu ally. Since attempts by both groups to form a coalition failed, the country’s politics have been at a standstill and will not move forward until a government can be established.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is planning to hold its first parliamentary and presidential elections since 2006. During the opening of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced his general intention to call for elections. However, several challenges remain, particularly the need for logistical plans and ongoing discussions about how to hold elections in Gaza given that the Fatah party is not in control of Gaza. On 10 December, the Palestinian Authority sent an official request to the Israeli government asking it to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in the general elections, something that has happened in past elections. However, Israel has yet to respond. This arrangement was set up by the Oslo II Accord (1995) that says that, as long as Israel makes arrangements, Palestinians in Jerusalem have the right to participate in Palestinian elections.
The UN has taken steps to assist with the Palestinian elections. This includes sending an electoral assessment mission to the region in December. At press time, the assessment mission’s report was being finalised. In the meantime, President Abbas will need to decide whether to move forward and issue the Presidential Decree that will allow election preparation officially to begin or, alternatively, continue to wait on word from Israel on the status of voting in Eastern Jerusalem. Elections may be postponed given uncertainties on this issue.
While these quarterly debates represent a chance for the wider membership to discuss relations between Israel and the Palestinians, other tumultuous situations in the Middle East may be raised in the meeting. Some members may discuss consequences of the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, as well as Iran’s decision to back away from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. In the context of Syria, member states may also want to discuss the recent adoption of resolution 2504, which re-authorised only two of the four existing border crossings, and for a period of six months instead of 12. The negotiations were extremely difficult, and some members were left unhappy with the results. Additionally, member states may also discuss current events in Lebanon. Protests began on 17 October as a result of several underlying causes, including new taxes and general discontent with the government’s ability to respond to crises such as large wildfires. By the end of the month, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. A new government has not been formed, and in the face of no progress, protests started again on 15 January, with the protestors increasingly angry about restrictions that banks have put on their monetary withdrawals.