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January, in short:

  • Abbas strikes a reconciliatory tone toward Israel after a dramatic week in which he accepted the resignation of the PA government.
  • Benny Gantz launched his campaign and immediately shot up in the polls, becoming the first real challenge to Netanyahu's rule in years.
  • U.N. and Qatar restored a fragile calm in Gaza and are working on a mechanism, without Abbas.
  • U.S. aid to the Palestinians is set to stop.
  • The United Nations warned about the state of the two-state solution as the United States considers its strategy.

These events and some contradictory trends ultimately moved the Two-State Index (TSI) up by 1.0%.

The full report is below.
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PA President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignation of his prime minister and the government on Jan 29. The government will serve until a new one is formed. Abbas also called for new elections, but they would require the unlikely cooperation of Hamas and Israel. After widespread protests and strikes from workers and nongovernmental employees across the West Bank in recent weeks, Abbas suspended the controversial Social Security Law. Before his resignation, PA Prime Minster Rami Hamdallah sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the Palestinian Authority will stop accepting security aid from the United States at the end of January in response to the passage of the new “Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act” (ACTA). Finally, in a blow to the one of the few remaining symbols of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, Israel decided not to extend the mandate for TIPH, the international monitoring force in Hebron. In response, the Palestinians called for the deployment of a U.N. “permanent international presence in Occupied Palestine, including East Jerusalem,” and Norway called the decision “worrying.”

Israel is pressing Washington to amend ACTA, fearing it will have dire security consequences, as Israeli-PA security coordination is an anchor of Israeli security strategy in the West Bank. U.S. assistance to the Palestinians — including USAID programs and civil society projectswas expected to stop
as the TSI went to press on February 1. This moves the United States parameter from 3 to 2, and the Palestinian civil society score from 5 to 4.
The resignation of the PA government marks the end of a failed unity bid with rival Hamas, which condemned the government’s resignation. Some estimate that if the new PA cabinet is made of technocrats, pressure on Gaza will likely continue; conversely, if the new government consists of PLO factions — as called for by the Fatah Central Committee — pressure on Gaza will likely reduce, as political factions are attentive to public attitudes supportive of reconciliation. Others believe that Abbas’s dominance will remain the same either way. These developments come in a tense month featuring a
crisis over conditions of Palestinian prisoners as well as a steep rise settler violence (See OCHA’s protection of civilians reports here). Coupled with Israeli election season that pushes serving Likud minsters to the reinforce their hawkish tendencies — the situation is volatile. Separately, in conversation with Israeli business leaders, Abbas reinforced his wish for peace, negotiations, mutual recognition, and security. After months of hostile remarks, the PLO chairman score moves up from 4 to 5.

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After a tense few days in Gaza in which Hamas refused to accept Qatari funds, U.N. and Qatari mediation restored a fragile calm and the transfer of funds to Gaza. As the month came to a close, Egypt opened the Rafah border closing in both directions for three days after the crossing had been closed since the Palestinian Authority withdrew its staff earlier in the month.

Egypt and the United Nations are working on a mechanism that stabilizes Gaza in the immediate term, with the notable exclusion of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. The United Nations plays a key role in the transfer of funds that are allocated to AHLC projects instead of cash handouts to Hamas. The exclusion of the Palestinian Authority from the arrangement is a setback to reconciliation, stable ceasefire and for the two-state solution. The parameter measuring Third Party engagement moves from 6 to 5. Separately, Hamas reportedly plans use the weeks leading up to Israel’s election and pressure it — via escalations — to allow larger projects to proceed. These contradictory trends — stabilization mechanism and escalation intentions — leave the relevant Gaza parameters in place.

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Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz launched his election campaign, delivering a prime time speech. The speech received relatively positive reviews. It immediately shot Gantz’s party — Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience) — up in the polls with 21 to 24 seats. Likud still leads with a forecasted 30-31 seats. A possible alliance between Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would receive 35 seats (with Gantz at the helm(. Dramatically, the public places Gantz neck-to-neck with Netanyahu when asked who should be prime minister (35%/36% by Channel 12, 42%/42% by Channel 13). Notably, and with possible consequential effects in coalition forming, recent dynamism in the Center and Right pushed many parties toward or below the 4-seat threshold needed to enter the Knesset, including Tzipi Livni’s Hatnu’a, Moshe Kachlon's Kulanu, Jewish Home, and Meretz, among others — so additional merges are expected before the elections.
Earlier in January, Rightist parties, predominantly Likud, held the “Leumiada” convention that featured explicit calls for West Bank annexation from many Likud MKs.

Although the party landscape is still dynamic — Likud and Labor are set to hold primaries soon, mergers are still likely as smaller parties maneuver to survive, and public attitudes may yet change — Gantz’s dramatic rise in the polls set up a tight election season, and certainly cracked Likud’s dominance. Former Likud Defense Minster Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon joined Gantz, consolidating a security, center-right posture to the party, that Likud initially struggles to paint as Leftist. Despite his rightists leaning, the prospect for a victory manifested in Gantz’s rise deals an electoral setback (in the polls) to traditional left-peace camp (Labor, Meretz, and Livni). Although not as a central theme, Gantz’s speech placed peace back on the agenda: “Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change.” Rejecting the status quo as a viable option, Gantz also alluded to Israel’s unilateral option, saying, “if it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality.” All in all, his rise in the polls show that talk of peace and Israel’s interest to separate from the Palestinians are not politically-costly, provided the messenger satisfies a security threshold and is charismatic enough. He may well prove to be the missing link connecting the Israeli public’s preference — recent
INSS polling show support for the two-state solution stable at 58% — to the policy of their government. Such dynamics, including positions inconsistent with a realistic two-state solution (“United Jerusalem … will remain forever the capital of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel”), resembles former generals-cum-politicians Rabin and Sharon, who ultimately enacted policies on the ground to reshape the Israeli-Palestinian landscape. These developments reshuffle an election season that had been dominated by Netanyahu and bring hope after years under a leadership that opposes a two-state solution. The relevant Israeli leadership parameters of prime minister, government, and legislature each move up to 3.
Separately, the Right’s focus on annexation — termed “sovereignty” for public consumption — is a manifestation on the settlers hold on the Likud primaries system, and flies in the face of Likud voters preferences for a moderate policy on the Palestinian question. More generally, the political Right has moved from managing the conflict to a strategy of annexation in the West Bank. The outgoing government has accelerated the creeping annexation: Steps designed to impede the ability of Israel’s High Court of Justice to strike down unconstitutional laws regarding annexation and discrimination, as well as enhance the rights of Jewish residents of the West Bank over those of Palestinians. The parameter measuring the application of Israeli law in the west bank moves from 7 to 5. See report by Commanders for Israel’s Security report:
Ramifications of West Bank Annexation: Security and Beyond.

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U.N. Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov delivered his report to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 22, warning that the possibility of establishing a “viable, contiguous Palestinian state” has been “systematically eroded by facts on the ground” manifested by expansion of Israeli settlements. Mladenov also pointed to internal Palestinian divisions, exacerbated by decades of occupation. Mladenov noted the “critical work [of] civil society to find common ground and to work towards resolving the conflict,” and added that “their efforts are inspiring and should be applauded and supported by all.” Separately, Israeli Channel 13 reported that the Trump administration’s peace plan will call for a Palestinian state in 85%-90% of the West Bank, with the capital of Palestine located in “most of the Arab neighborhoods” of East Jerusalem. The United States dismissed the report as “inaccurate,” the Palestinians rejected it because it fails to meet their bottom lines, and the Israeli Right rejected it because it calls for Palestinian statehood. Separately, Palestine took its place heading the group of 77 + China at the United Nations, and considered another appeal for full member state status.

The U.N. involvement, led by the special envoy, is consistent and noteworthy. The TSI therefore updates the weight (importance, on a 1-5 scale) of the International Actors/Other parameter from 1 to 2, while its score stays at an impressive 8. Although the peace process is frozen at least until Israeli elections are held on April 9, Trump officials identified the period between Israeli elections and he peak of the U.S. presidential campaign as the window for the publication of their plan. Should Netanyahu win the elections, the Americans might decide to publish the plan before the formation of the government to push Netanyahu to build a moderate coalition.

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In additional developments this month:
In a visit to a West Bank settlement, Netanyahu said “there won’t be any more uprooting or halting settlements — just the opposite: The Land of Israel is ours, and will remain ours.” Israel summoned Irland’s ambassador after the Irish Parliament’s lower house advanced a bill that would criminalize the import or sale of Israeli goods originating in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Israel and Chad renewed their diplomatic ties. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered a rare acknowledgement of his security cooperation with Israel. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of only two members of Congress suppirting BDS, was appointed a member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Comittee. Anti-BDS bill stirs harsh debate in Washington. Hardliner Bezalel Smotrich was elected as head of the National Union party, one of two factions that make up the Jewish Home party (extra credit: Smotrich’s ‘Decisive Plan’). Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi took over as the 22nd IDF commander. Israel opened Route 4370 — also termed the “Apartheid Road,” since it is divided in the middle by an eight-meter high wall — in a controversial area between East Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim. The growth rate in the settler population has slowed under Netanyahu to its lowest point in over 23 years (but is still higher than in pre-1967 Israel). Israel advanced planning of a new settlement south of Bethlehem, in an area considered particularly sensitive.

TSI Trendlines: overall index and arenas
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Some recommended sources for additional information:

  • Settlement expansion: Foundation for Middle East Peace's Settlement Reports.
  • Humanitarian reports, including casualties: The U.N. Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs’s monthly Humanitarian Bulletin.
  • For American Legislative developments: Foundation for Middle East Peace’s U.S. Legislative Round-ups.
  • For daily Middle East news: the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace’s News Updates.
Analysis
Abbas' Cabinet resigns; new government to form soon
By DAOUD KUTTAB, Al Monitor/ Palestine Pulse, January 29, 2019
Read the original analysis
here.

A new Palestinian government will be formed soon, now that the current Cabinet — headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah — officially submitted its resignation Jan. 29 to President Mahmoud Abbas. According to a decision announced Jan. 27 during a meeting of the powerful Fatah Central Committee in Ramallah, the new government will be made up entirely of PLO leaders. This is in contrast with the Hamdallah government, which was created as a national accord government with the hope of attracting Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to agree to hold elections.

Hamdallah said he was placing his resignation on Abbas' desk and is ready to work with whomever the president chooses to ensure a smooth transition of the new government.

Fatah spokesman Munir Jaghob said in a press statement Jan. 27 that the Fatah Central Committee has recommended “a political government made up of factions within the PLO and independents.”

Jaghob also said the committee decided to “temporarily suspend the social security law for a set period of time to allow for discussions with all pertinent groups.” The social security law spurred protests — including one that lasted four months and was one of the biggest and most powerful demonstrations against the Hamdallah government since it was established in 2014.

London-based Al Araby al Jadid reported Jan. 27 on some of the discussions that supposedly took place during the rambunctious, four-hour Fatah meeting. Citing a source who attended the meeting, the newspaper said that while the majority of members favor ending the Hamdallah government and appointing Fatah Central Committee member Mohammad Shtayyeh in his place, Fatah strongman Jibril Rajoub and former head of intelligence Tawfiq Tirawi objected, saying the continuity of the Hamdallah government is needed right now.

The source further noted that PLO Secretary Saeb Erekat suggested he head the new government, and that this idea was knocked down by Fatah member Hussein Sheikh, who said Erekat wouldn't be able to hold a senior PLO position and run the Palestinian government at the same time.

The Fatah Central Committee formed a group Jan. 27 tasked with consulting various PLO factions and reporting back in a week.

Abbas Zaki, a member of the central committee, told Al-Monitor that while problems are continuing, people are looking for solutions. “There is a chance to change the government and to have a Cabinet representing PLO factions, but that requires dialogue with the PLO factions.”

Zaki added that Palestinians need a clear strategy before changing the government.

Initial statements from a number of PLO factions haven't been positive.

Representatives of left-wing PLO factions and a number of independent factions said in separate statements that they will not join a government unless all Palestinian parties, including Hamas, are involved.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in press briefings that Fatah's intentions to set up a government outside of the national consensus is “a departure from national partnership and a continuation of the single-minded Fatah policies that will ensure the dedication of the division.”

Prior to the latest decision, Shtayyeh said in a Jan. 21 speech at a university in Ramallah that elections need to be restored: "It is a right of the Palestinian people and a way out of the current division.”

Zaki said Abbas has asked the head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, to go to Gaza and talk with Hamas leaders to find out if they would agree to hold elections. “If Hamas agrees that nation is more important than factionalism, then we can create a road map that we can work with," Zaki said.

Senior Palestinian sources in Ramallah told Al-Monitor that among the most likely individuals who could be asked to set up the next government is Shtayyeh, who leads the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Construction.

Possible candidates for prime minister include Fatah deputy head Mahmoud Alloul; Hussein Sheikh, who heads the Civil Affairs Ministry, which deals with Palestinian-Israeli daily affairs; and Erekat. A dark horse could be Nasser al-Qudwa, who resigned in May from the Fatah Central Committee in protest of what he said was Abbas monopolizing power and not sharing decision-making.

An unanswered question is whether a PLO government will make the possibility of reconciliation less likely, and push further away the possibility of any elections on either the parliamentary or legislative levels. The Palestinian Constitutional Court ordered in December that the outdated Palestinian Legislative Council be dissolved. The council's term expired in January 2010. The court called for legislative elections within six months, but so far the PLO hasn't held any discussions or taken legal action regarding presidential elections.

A political government backed by Fatah’s Central Committee instead of the current technocratic government will weaken Abbas' ability to monopolize power. While a change of government will bring new blood into Palestinian politics, this change isn't likely to resolve the major internal problems with Hamas, nor will it be able to stand up to attempts by the administration of US President Donald Trump to pressure Palestinians into accepting its unilaterally designed plan for peace.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, a media activist and a columnist for Palestine Pulse. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.
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