October, in short:

  • Evolving positions on aid to Israel among US Democrats: Statements from primary candidates reveal increasing openness to idea of conditioning military aid
  • No progress on Trump administration’s “vision for peace”: The administration indicates it will continue to wait until an Israeli government is formed to reveal political portion of its “vision”  
  • Palestinian elections on the horizon: President Abbas makes substantive moves towards legislative and presidential elections, but no official announcement yet
  • Spike in settler violence; new settlement expansion announced: Palestinian olive harvest accompanied by increase in settler attacks, and plans for thousands of new settlement housing units advanced
  • Good news for Palestinian economy in the West Bank: Agreement reached between the PA and Israel to transfer tax funds and renegotiate Paris Protocol

These events moved the Two-State Index (TSI) up by 0.9% (up by 0.05 points from 5.50 in previous month).

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Democrats shift on aid to Israel while Trump administration’s “vision” remains stuck in neutral

Throughout October, there were indications of a general shift in opinion within the US Democratic Party on the issue of aid to Israel. Senator Elizabeth Warren, currently polling in second place in the Democratic presidential primary election, said that “if Israel is moving in the opposite direction [of a two-state solution], everything is on the table” when responding to a question about conditioning military aid on the curbing of settlement expansion in the West Bank. Senator Bernie Sanders, another frontrunner in the primary, went one step further by stating that Israel would have to “fundamentally change [its] relationship with Gaza,” and suggested that some funds could be diverted to the Strip for humanitarian purposes. Another leading candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said that annexation of parts of the West Bank would merit a reconsideration of aid to Israel. 

However, these sentiments were countered by former Vice President Joe Biden, who maintains a lead in the primary race. Biden asserted that the idea of conditioning aid to Israel is “absolutely outrageous” and would be a “gigantic mistake.” Nonetheless, a poll released on October 25 found that roughly 70% of Democrats are in favor of conditioning aid to Israel. Influential Jewish American columnist Peter Beinart wrote that “by exposing the popularity of restrictions on American aid, Senator Sanders has pressured his rivals to move in his direction” and concluded that “when it comes to Israel, there are now two Democratic Parties.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued to make clear that it would delay publication of its “vision for peace” until after the formation of an Israeli government, which appears increasingly unlikely anytime soon. Jared Kushner traveled to Israel on October 28 to meet with PM Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the latter having been tasked on October 23 with forming a government after Netanyahu’s failure to do so. In a subsequent interview, Kushner refused to reject the option of Israel annexing the Jordan Valley, saying that “we like to keep our options open.” This followed remarks by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman that the administration’s “vision” would not include the evacuation of settlers from parts of the West Bank, calling it “failed policy” and “not something we would advance.”

The continued delay of the publication of the Trump administration’s “vision for peace”, which would likely undermine the two-state framework, is therefore a positive development for the possibility of achieving a two-state solution. Combined with the shifts among Democratic politicians and voters in the US, these developments shifted the US parameter from 3 to 4.


Palestinians move towards potential elections

After announcing his intention to hold elections during a speech to the UN General Assembly late last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formed a committee on October 3 to advance the measure. A demand by Hamas to hold legislative and presidential elections simultaneously was overcome two days after a delegation of PA elections officials arrived in Gaza for negotiations. Hamas agreed to hold separate elections within three months of each other, with the election for the Palestinian National Council likely to precede the presidential round.

Yet, there remain a number of obstacles, including stipulations by Hamas to negotiate various details of the electoral process and its aftermath, and more significantly, a demand (made in conjunction with five other Palestinian organizations) for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Moreover, Abbas has yet to issue the presidential decree necessary for elections to be officially announced.

With the status of the Palestinian elections still uncertain, all relevant parameters remained the same in October. 


Settler violence on the upswing while settlement expansion continues

The olive harvest in the West Bank began this past month, and with it came a spike in the number of settler attacks against Palestinians. According to OCHA, October witnessed a total of 41 settler attacks on Palestinians, almost 2 ½ times the number of attacks in September and an amount roughly equivalent to the total number of attacks in the previous three months combined.  So far in 2019, there have been 270 settler attacks on Palestinians, with 60 resulting in physical casualties and 210 resulting in damage to Palestinian property.

Attacks were also carried out against Israeli human rights workers (which included the beating of an 80-year-old rabbi), border police, and – most notably for the Israeli public – IDF soldiers. These attacks, occurring in the context of the dismantling of structures at an illegal settlement outpost, brought increased awareness of the lawless nature of many settlers and the settler enterprise in general. While most settlers do not engage in violent activity, many residents of settlements such as Yitzhar (where the attacks against soldiers occurred) and others provide varying levels of support for those who do.

Even as Israel was selectively enforcing the rule of law against the illegal outpost near Yitzhar, the Netanyahu government continued settlement expansion in West Bank. On October 30, Peace Now revealed that the Israeli Civil Administration had advanced plans for 2,342 settlement housing units, with 719 of the units receiving final approval for construction. Under the Geneva Initiative, 59% of these settlement units would need to be removed. The plans included final approval for a tunnel road bypassing Bethlehem, a development that “is expected to dramatically increase the number of settlers in the Bethlehem area,” according to Peace Now. This latest round of approvals brought the total number for 2019 to 8,337, an increase of almost 50% compared to the number of approvals in 2018 (5,618).

The new settlement expansion, which undermines prospects for a contiguous Palestinian state, moved the relevant parameter from 4 to 3 in October. Due to the increase in the Israel public’s awareness of settler violence, the Israeli civil society parameter shifted from 7 to 8.


Positive economic news for the Palestinian Authority

On October 4, the Palestinian Authority announced that it had reached a deal with the Israeli government to accept tax funds (clearance revenues) totaling NIS 1.8 billion. Since February, the PA had refused to accept the revenues, which come from customs duties levied on items imported to Palestinian markets through Israeli ports. This refusal was in protest of the Israeli government’s decision to deduct an amount equal to what the PA pays Palestinian prisoners and their families. 

The deal also included an agreement by Israel to reactivate joint Palestinian-Israeli technical committees that had been suspended for almost 20 years. Palestinian officials said that this would allow for re-negotiating and amending parts of the Paris Protocol, the economic portion of the Oslo Accords. According to The Portland Trust, these committees “will examine pending fiscal disputes, including deductions made by Israel in the past two decades over electricity, water, and medical transfers bills” and the Palestinians will seek changes to the Paris Protocol “such as renegotiating import lists and quotas, and acquiring approval for infrastructure construction and projects that pass through Area C in the West Bank.”

As for the continuing issue of Israel’s deduction of payments equal to the PA’s so-called “Martyrs’ Fund”, it was reported that both sides have “agreed to disagree” and Israel will continue to deduct NIS 40 million per month from transfers to the PA. Hussein Al Sheikh, Head of Palestinian Civil Affairs Commission and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, said that the payments to prisoners and their families will continue, and that the PA is “determined to pay their dues at all costs.”

With the retroactive transfer of clearance revenues, which constitute more than 50% of the PA’s total revenue, the parameter related to the Palestinian economy in the West Bank shifted from 3 to 4 in October.

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