Quarterly Open Debate: The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question
Tomorrow (26 January), the quarterly open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” will be held in videoconference (VTC) format. Tor Wennesland, who replaced Nickolay Mladenov as the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in December 2020, will give his first briefing to the Council in his new role. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, is also expected to brief. Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Othman Jerandi, is expected to chair the meeting. In addition, some other Council members, as well as the Observer State of Palestine, will be represented at ministerial level. The statements of Wennesland, Council members and the representatives of Israel and the Observer State of Palestine are expected to be broadcast live. Non-Council members will have the opportunity to submit statements in writing that will subsequently be circulated in a Council document.
Wennesland may reiterate the key messages that have long defined the UN’s position on the Middle East peace process. In this regard, he may emphasise the following points: support for the two-state solution, condemnation of violence by both sides, criticism of Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the need for the parties to reengage in meaningful political negotiations, the need for intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Concerns with recent settlement activity will probably feature prominently in briefings by Wennesland and Aboul Gheit and will likely be echoed by several Council members. In this regard, Israeli officials approved plans on 17 January to construct some 780 homes in settlements across the West Bank. On 18 January, in a statement released by his spokesman, UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his deep concern with the decision, reiterating that settlement construction “constitutes a flagrant violation of international law” and urging Israel “to halt and reverse such decisions”.
Some members may also criticise the demolition of Palestinian civilian structures in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to OCHA, as at 14 December 2020, Israeli authorities had demolished 815 Palestinian structures—defined as “residential, livelihood-related, service-related or part of infrastructure”—in 2020 in this area. This represents the highest annual figure since 2016.
Another key development expected to garner significant attention in tomorrow’s meeting is the announcement that Palestinian elections are planned for later this year. In a 15 January decree, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah party, declared that legislative, presidential, and Palestinian National Council elections would take place on 22 May, 31 July, and 31 August 2021, respectively. The briefers and several member states will most likely signal their encouragement for such elections, which could constitute a major step in intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts. On 16 January, Guterres, again in a statement through his spokesman, welcomed the decree, stating that “the holding of elections in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza will be a crucial step towards Palestinian unity, giving renewed legitimacy to national institutions, including a democratically elected Parliament and Government in Palestine”. The Secretary-General further expressed hope that “the holding of the elections will contribute to restarting a process towards a negotiated two-State solution based on the pre-1967 lines”.
The last Palestinian elections were held in 2006. In 2007, the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, had a falling-out and Hamas seized the Gaza strip, which it controls to this day. Hamas has expressed support for Abbas’ recent decree. However, given the failed efforts of Hamas and Fatah to reconcile in past years, some analysts have questioned whether the two parties will be able to cooperate to conduct the elections, let alone govern together.
Another likely topic of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting is how to resurrect the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Some Council members have noted the role that the Middle East Quartet—which is comprised of the EU, Russia, the UN, and the US—could play in reinvigorating the peace process. The potential of the Quartet in this regard is likely to be reiterated tomorrow. In this respect, while briefing the Council on 18 January on relations between the League of Arab States and the UN, Aboul Gheit said that the two-state formula had been “marginalized” under the Trump administration and that he hoped that the new US administration under President Joe Biden would “engage in a fruitful political process with the support of influential regional and international parties”.
The challenges of addressing COVID-19 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories might be discussed in the meeting. Some members may encourage the Israeli authorities, who appear to be conducting an effective vaccination programme among Israeli citizens, to help vaccinate Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. On 14 January, Michael Lynk and Tialeng Mofokeng, special rapporteurs for the UN Human Rights Council, released a statement expressing concern that vaccines that have been ordered separately by the Palestinians might not be delivered in large quantities for several weeks, meaning “that more than 4.5 million Palestinians will remain unprotected and exposed to Covid-19”. They argued that “this differential access to necessary health care [between Israelis and Palestinians] in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable”. In response to a question at the 19 January press briefing, Spokesman for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said: “We’ve continued to encourage Israel to help address the needs of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to support vaccine availability more generally.” Dujarric added: “It is important also to note that Israel has worked closely with the UN and partners throughout the course of the pandemic to ensure equipment and supplies have been delivered throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Gaza.”
Tomorrow’s debate will be the Security Council’s first on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” since President Biden’s inauguration on 20 January. While the US will continue to be Israel’s strongest advocate in the Council under the new administration, it is expected to be less accommodating than the Trump administration to the positions of the current Israeli government. In this regard, the Biden administration is likely to be critical of settlement expansion.
The debate will also be the first on this file for the five new elected members: India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, and Norway. Particularly notable is the presence of Norway, which has historically played an important role in the Middle East peace process. It also chairs the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), which coordinates the delivery of international aid to the Palestinian Authority; the AHLC was established in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo I Accord.