Quarterly Open Debate: The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
On Monday (26 October), Security Council members will hold the quarterly open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” via videoconference. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is expected to brief. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Vershinin, is expected to chair the meeting, and some other Council members may also be represented at ministerial level. As is the norm in these quarterly debates, Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are likely to participate. The statements of Mladenov, 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 statements in writing that will subsequently be circulated in a Council document.
An issue that will most likely be raised in the meeting is the approval by the Higher Planning Council of the Israeli Civil Administration of the construction of nearly 5,000 housing units in the West Bank. In a 15 October statement, Mladenov said that the advancement of plans to build these units “is of great concern to all those who remain committed to…Israeli-Palestinian peace”. In his briefing, he may reiterate that settlement construction is illegal under international law and undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. Several member states are expected to reiterate concern about settlement construction as well. In this regard, the foreign ministries of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain issued a statement on 16 October in which they expressed their deep concern about Israel’s recent decision, arguing that it “further undermines efforts to rebuild trust between the parties with a view to resuming dialogue”.
Mladenov may also provide an update on the impact of the Palestinian Authority’s decision, taken in May, to suspend security and financial cooperation with Israel. As a result of this decision, the Palestinians are no longer accepting tax revenue collected for it by Israel. Mladenov may give his view on the impact of this decision on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and on security in the region.
Another issue that will probably be raised is the impact of COVID-19 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mladenov may describe how the UN system and other actors are working together to address this public health crisis, as well as related humanitarian and economic challenges. According to OCHA, as at 19 October, 59,595 cases of COVID infection had been reported and 492 people had died of the virus in these areas.
A number of potential negotiating formulas have been proposed in recent months to re-engage Israelis and Palestinians in peace talks, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call on 25 September for an international conference in early 2021—undertaken by the UN Secretary General “in cooperation with the [Middle East] Quartet and the Security Council”—to resolve “all final status issues”.
However, while members are likely to call for efforts to re-launch the political process during the meeting, many are aware of the potential ramifications of the 3 November US presidential election in this regard, given US membership in the Middle East Quartet and its important role in the region. The Trump administration maintains that its peace plan—which envisions the incorporation into the state of Israel of existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank—should be viewed as a starting point for negotiations that offer the Palestinians a path to statehood, even though the plan has been widely rejected, including by the Palestinians. Should President Trump lose the election, a Biden administration could be expected to articulate a different approach to the conflict. The next presidential term in the US begins on 20 January 2021.
Mladenov may describe the latest developments regarding intra-Palestinian reconciliation in his briefing. On 24 September, during a meeting in Turkey, the two main Palestinian factions—Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which is based in the West Bank—agreed to hold presidential and legislative elections within six months. Subsequent talks have also taken place between Hamas and Fatah. According to several sources, Israel’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank—and the subsequent diplomatic normalisation agreements that Israel forged with the UAE and Bahrain—underscored to the different Palestinian factions the importance of reconciliation and unification. According to the Arab Peace Initiative, adopted by the League of Arab States in 2002, the normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states would follow the establishment of a Palestinian state “on the Palestinian territories occupied since the 4th of June 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital”.
On Friday (23 October), Sudan and Israel agreed to normalise relations—including in the areas of trade and economics—although, as reported in The New York Times, it does not appear that this entails the establishment of full diplomatic ties. Israel established full diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain earlier this year. Among Arab countries, Israel also has full diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, established in 1979 and 1994, respectively. While welcoming these agreements, some members may also emphasise the importance of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition to Israeli-Palestinian relations, Mladenov may touch on developments in Lebanon and the Golan Heights. He might refer to the need for Lebanon to form a new government, as well as the negotiations between Israel and Lebanon on a maritime boundary. With regard to the Golan Heights, Mladenov could express concern about Israeli and Syrian violations of the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement.