Open VTC on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”
Tomorrow (23 April), Security Council members will hold an open VTC on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is expected to brief. Due to the impact of COVID-19 on the Council’s working methods, the open VTC is being held in lieu of the quarterly open debate on this issue. While the statements of Council members, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be broadcast live, other non-Council members will have the opportunity to submit statements in writing that will subsequently be circulated.
The implications of the 20 April agreement to form a government of national unity in Israel on the prospects of a two-state solution are likely to be an important topic of discussion. After three inconclusive elections and citing the need for national unity in light of the outbreak of COVID-19, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival, Benny Gantz, agreed to forge a coalition government in which Netanyahu will retain his post for 18 months, followed by an 18-month term for Gantz as prime minister. Under the terms of the coalition deal signed by the two leaders, the government will be able to decide as early as 1 July on whether to annex parts of the West Bank, and Gantz will not have the authority to block such a decision. The terms of the agreement stipulate that the decision on the annexation will be made in “full agreement with the United States and with international discussions on the subject”. During his campaign, Netanyahu promised that he would annex the occupied Jordan Valley in the West Bank if he were to win the election.
Many Council members believe that annexation of part of the West Bank would have a very damaging impact on the possibility of a two-state solution. Several Council members have advocated a two-state solution in line with pre-1967 borders, with some referencing agreed land swaps by the parties. These positions have been widely reiterated during Council meetings, especially since the announcement on 28 January of the US peace plan, which calls for the incorporation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, into the state of Israel.
The efforts of the UN to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19—as well as those of Israel and the Palestinian Authority—are also expected to feature in the discussion. Mladenov may note the funding needs of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), especially in light of the increased demands on its operations and finances resulting from the virus. He may also discuss coordination between Israel and the Palestinians in preventing the spread of COVID-19; in this regard, Israel has donated medical supplies to the Palestinian Authority, and the two parties have shared information with each other in an effort to stem the impact of the virus. On 30 March, following the last Council VTC session on Israeli-Palestinian issues, press elements were issued in which members welcomed ongoing Israeli-Palestinian coordination to address the coronavirus.
Tomorrow, while some member states may encourage the parties to build on their coordination on COVID-19 to promote broader reconciliation, some members may also refer to Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power to fight the virus. In this regard, Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, said on 19 March: “The legal duty, anchored in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, requires that Israel, the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive means available to it are utilized to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics’”.
Concerns about the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza are likely to be raised during the meeting. There could be calls on the international community to bolster its support for the Palestinian Authority to help it provide critical services to its people in the midst of the current health crisis.
There may also be some discussion of possible next steps in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, given the rejection of the US peace plan by many key actors, including the Palestinian Authority, the League of Arab States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, among others. On 26 March, representatives of the Middle East Quartet—consisting of Russia, the US, the EU and the UN—held a virtual meeting on COVID-19 and discussed how to reinvigorate the peace process.
Other long-standing concerns that will probably be reiterated in the meeting are Israeli settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes.