April, in short:

  • Netanyahu and Gantz sign coalition agreement, increase likelihood of annexation: If a new Israeli government is formed, it will be mandated to move forward on formal steps for West Bank annexation in the summer
  • Palestinians and international community responds to prospect of annexation: Details of Israeli coalition agreement elicit threats by Abbas, warnings from international and regional actors, and a potential, conditional green-light from the Trump administration
  • Cooperation maintained between Israelis and Palestinians on COVID-19: Positive developments continue, but friction emerges after Israeli actions against the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem
  • Pandemic begins to take drastic toll on Palestinian economy: Dire projections announced even as the full extent of the economic damage is yet to be determined
  • Rise in West Bank violence for second straight month: The trend of increased settler attacks on Palestinians continues

These events decreased the Two-State Index (TSI) by .5% (down 0.02 points from 5.21 in the previous month).

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West Bank annexation looms after Netanyahu-Gantz agreement

The coalition agreement signed on April 20th by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz sets the stage for an Israeli government to potentially be established after a year of inconclusive elections. The agreement also significantly increases the chances for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, allowing the government to initiate legislation for annexation starting on July 1st. However, a number of elements within the agreement make the prospective government’s path to annexation unclear. 

Paragraph 28 stipulates that “with regard to President Trump's declaration [on the peace plan], the Prime Minister and the Alternate Prime Minister will act in full agreement with the United States, including with the Americans in regard to the maps and with international dialogue on the subject,” and paragraph 29 explicitly states that legislation for annexation will be based on “agreement reached with the United States.” What will be agreed to by the United States is unknown; it may shift based on the political priorities of the Trump administration and may include a broader, formal Israeli acceptance of the US plan. Another unknown is what will constitute “international dialogue” and to what extent Israeli will factor such dialogue into its decision-making, given the near-unanimous opposition to annexation throughout the international community.

Paragraph 28 also states that legislative measures towards annexation will be taken “while pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, including the need for maintaining regional stability, the preservation of peace agreements and the pursuit of future peace agreements.” Considering the stance of both Jordan and Egypt against annexation, the threat it would pose to their stability, and Israel’s relations with both countries – enshrined in peace treaties – as well as with other regional states, it remains to be seen how Israel can proceed with annexation while adhering to these principles. It is also notable that the coalition agreement contains no language specifically related to launching peace negotiations with the Palestinians or achieving a two-state solution, the purported goals of the Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace”.

Israel’s ultimate decision could be influenced by a multitude of other factors, particularly the position of the security establishment, and could be influenced by legal and economic factors, as well as public opinion. From a political perspective, although Gantz’ Blue and White party is expected to oppose unilateral annexation, the degree to which the party is willing to do so, and how united they will be in the process, is highly uncertain.

With the coalition agreement explicitly mandating a move towards annexation, the parameters related to Israeli law in the West Bank and Israeli control over Area C decreased from 5 to 4 and from 3 to 2, respectively. In addition, the continued entrenchment of West Bank annexation as an accepted idea among the Israeli mainstream moved the Israeli public opinion parameter down from 7 to 6.


Increased likelihood of annexation prompts varied international reaction

Following Gantz and Netanyahu’s signing of their coalition agreement, Mahmoud Abbas appeared on Palestine TV on April 22nd and stated that all Palestinian agreements with Israel and the US would be “completely cancelled” if Israel proceeds with West Bank annexation. Among Abbas’ options in response to annexation, which would be an unequivocal violation of the Oslo accords, the most consequential would be a decision to annul all previous agreements with Israel, leading to the end of security coordination between the two sides. Dr. Sameh al-Abed, a former Palestinian negotiator, asserted that annexation of the Jordan Valley “[would eliminate] the two-state solution entirely. For Palestinians, it is the food basket and a region for future urban expansion. It is also a tourist destination [because of] the Dead Sea, the base for a very rich aquifer for both agriculture and home usage … and the gateway to foreign trade. Without it, there is no future for any Palestinian political entity.”

Reaction from US officials appeared to justify Palestinian fears, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing that “annexation of the West Bank … is an Israeli decision [to make].” This statement appeared to assume that a government would soon be formed based on the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement, as the Trump administration previously maintained that such a development was a condition for annexation to proceed. Days later, a State Department spokesperson added that the US is “prepared to recognize Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the [Trump plan] foresees as being part of the State of Israel.”

Pushback against potential Israeli annexation came most prominently from the UN and EU – including a strong statement by France that any such move "would not pass unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel" – as well as Russia and China. On April 30th, a group of ambassadors from eleven European countries formally protested to the Israeli Foreign Ministry over the prospect of annexation, stressing that any such action would have serious repercussions regarding both the stability of the Middle East and Israel’s standing internationally.  Meanwhile, Jordan launched a campaign to persuade foreign leaders to pressure Israel over annexation, warning of similarly dire consequences for regional stability and prospects for a two-state solution, and the Arab League condemned annexation as “a new war crime … against the Palestinian people.”

Dr. Nimrod Goren, the head of the Mitvim Institute, explained that “the type of annexation that Netanyahu will eventually choose to pursue will impact how harsh the international response will be. The reaction of the Palestinians on the ground – whether violent or not – will also be a determining factor.” Within Israel and the Palestinian Territories, civil society organizations ramped up their own anti-annexation efforts. Among other actions, the 22 Palestinian and Israeli organizations that comprise the Two-State Solution Coalition sent a letter on April 14th to a number of international actors, urging them to prevent annexation and attempt to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations.

The level of vocal opposition to Israeli annexation of the West Bank among members of the international community in April increased the Third-party engagement parameter from 6 to 7. 


COVID-19 cooperation continues despite new strains

There were new, positive instances of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in April related to the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. A joint Israeli-Palestinian medical committee was established, and Israel tentatively agreed to advance tax revenue payments of NIS 500 million per month to the Palestinian Authority for six months (although it is currently unclear if this measure will go forward). Furthermore, a group of Palestinian doctors and nurses from Gaza were reportedly given training by an Israeli medical team at the Erez crossing, and another group from Gaza subsequently permitted to attend a training workshop in Ashkelon, according to the same report.

However, the spirit of cooperation that emerged after the outbreak of the virus also came under the strain of the political dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In early April, Israeli police arrested Adnan Ghaith, the PA-appointed governor of East Jerusalem, and PA minister of Jerusalem Affairs Fadi al-Hadami, both for conducting activity in Jerusalem related to COVID-19. On April 15th, Israeli police shut down a coronavirus testing center in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan whose testing kits were provided by the PA. One week later, Israeli authorities prevented Palestinian police from enforcing coronavirus-related regulations in East Jerusalem, despite having allowed such enforcement on two prior occasions.

Despite these developments, overall Israeli-Palestinian cooperation related to COVID-19 remained productive in April, and all relevant parameters stayed the same.


Palestinian economy in the West Bank suffering under COVID-19 restrictions

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics announced in April that it expects the Palestinian economy to incur losses of roughly $2.5 billion, assuming that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic last until at least May, with GDP declining by 14% in 2020 compared to 2019. It is anticipated that private and public consumption will decrease by a total of $1.3 billion, and investment by $2.1 billion, with drastic consequences for the services sector in particular, as well as tourism, industry, construction, and agriculture. Moreover, it was revealed by Palestinian PM Mohammad Shtayyeh that declining local and clearance revenues have increased the PA’s budget deficit to about $1.4 billion.

There were some glimmers of hope for financial aid, with 59 US members of congress publicly urging the Trump administration to resume aid to the Palestinians. This came on the heels of a $5 million contribution from the US, which is supposed to be directed to the funding of hospitals in Jerusalem in the coming weeks. On April 22nd, Secretary Pompeo indicated that the Trump administration may consider releasing additional funds.

Nonetheless, the Palestinian economy will be significantly affected by the pandemic, with the full extent of the damage unknowable in the near term. In April, the relevant parameter decreased from 4 to 3.  


Violence in the West Bank on the rise

April witnessed a marked increase in violent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, continuing a trend from the previous month. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem recorded 23 attacks through the first three weeks of April, matching the total for all of March (final statistics for April have not yet been released). The attacks included assaults with weapons as well as vandalism. Meanwhile, the IDF reported a rise in stone-throwing by Palestinians at Israeli civilian vehicles.

While these trends are notable, Israeli and Palestinian violence in the West Bank remains at a relatively low level for now, and all relevant parameters stayed the same in April.

What to look for next month:

  • The Israeli High Court’s ruling, in the first week of May, on whether a government can be formed on the basis of the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement 
  • The final make-up and priorities of the Israeli government, assuming it is able to be formed
  • Developments on "Nakba Day" (May 15th) – the day Palestinians commemorate their displacement in 1948 – which has previously seen demonstrations and some violence
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