Open VTC meeting on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”
Tomorrow (21 July) Council members are expected to hold the quarterly open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” in open videoconference (VTC) format. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is expected to brief. Council members will also be briefed by two civil society representatives: Daniel Levy, president of the US / Middle East Project (USMEP) and Dr. Khalil Shikaki, professor of Political Science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. The statements of the briefers, Council members and the representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine will be broadcast live. Non-Council members will have the opportunity to submit their statements in writing that will subsequently be circulated in a Council document.
The main issue to be discussed in the meeting will most likely be the threat of annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel—an issue that has been frequently raised in recent months in Council meetings. Under the terms of the coalition deal signed on 17 May by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former political rival, Benny Gantz, Israel’s national unity government would be able to decide as early as 1 July on whether to annex parts of the West Bank. The terms of the agreement stipulated that the decision on annexation—which Gantz does not have the authority to block—would be made in “full agreement with the United States and with international discussions on the subject”. Amidst international pressure against annexation, the government has yet to announce whether and when it would proceed with annexation, what precise areas would be annexed, and whether the process would happen in a phased manner.
Mladenov and several Council members may reiterate their concerns about potential annexation. Among the criticisms that have been expressed—and that may be repeated tomorrow—are that such a move would be a violation of international law, would undermine the prospects of a two-state solution and damage the possibilities for renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In contrast to other Council members, the US has said that its “Vision for Peace” plan—which envisions the incorporation into the state of Israel of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem—should be viewed as a starting point for negotiations that offer the Palestinians a path to statehood.
The parties themselves have diametrically opposed views on the US “Vision for Peace”. The Palestinians have strongly rejected it. During the 23 April open VTC meeting on the Middle East, Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour stated that the US plan, as well as an Israeli decision to move forward with annexation, would “destroy the two-State solution and entrench Israel’s military control over the Palestinian people and their land” (S/2020/341). In contrast, at the 24 June open VTC meeting on the Middle East (S/2020/596) Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon said that Israel would negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the US initiative, calling it a “significant opportunity” and accusing the Palestinians of choosing “rejectionism over any realistic solution” to the conflict.
Mladenov and several member states may reiterate their call to resurrect the peace process, given the widespread rejection of the US initiative. One option that has been proposed by the Special Coordinator and some member states—and could be further explored in tomorrow’s meeting—is to use the Middle East Quartet, which consists of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US, as a forum for negotiations. Mladenov may also cover his recent engagement with Israeli and Palestinian civil society representatives and highlight the important role that civil society can play in promoting the peace process.
There may also be discussion in tomorrow’s meeting about the extent to which the Palestinian Authority has severed its cooperation with Israeli authorities on security and financial matters. Speaking in Ramallah on 19 May, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the Palestinian leadership would be absolved from security and other agreements with Israel and the US in light of the Israeli government’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank. Subsequently, the Palestinian Authority withdrew some of its forces from Abu Dis, and declared that it would no longer accept taxes collected for it by Israel. Member states may be interested in learning more about the measures that may have been taken to end cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and their potential impact on stability in the region.
Another issue likely to be raised in tomorrow’s meeting is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. Members may be interested in what measures are being taken by the UN system, as well as by the Israelis and the Palestinians, to curb its spread, as there has been a significant increase in the number of infected persons in the West Bank. As of 17 July, 8,616 cases have been reported in the West Bank, and 52 people have died from the virus.
Given the ongoing humanitarian needs facing Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere—which are likely to be exacerbated by the coronavirus—some Council members may also choose to appeal for enhanced financial support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA). In this regard, an UNWRA pledging conference, chaired by Jordan and Sweden, was held virtually on 23 June, resulting in pledges amounting to approximately $130 million. Fulfilment of these pledges will help to partially cover UNWRA’s $400 million funding gap.