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May
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May, in short:

  • President Abbas announces suspension of PA-Israeli security cooperation: The full ramifications of the move are yet to be realized, but indicate new level of seriousness regarding response to Israeli annexation measures
  • Formation of new Israeli government starts countdown to potential annexation: Netanyahu vows to forge ahead as Blue and White leaders indicate a cautious approach and Israeli security officials issue warnings
  • International and regional actors express public opposition to annexation: The new Israeli government’s stated intentions provoke strong statements from Jordan, weak signals from the Gulf, and continued pushback from the UN, EU, and Russia 
  • Opposition to potential annexation measures rising among Israeli civil society: Organizations initiate new campaigns, as settlers work against adoption of Trump plan and new poll shows lack of Israeli support for annexation

These events decreased the Two-State Index (TSI) by .6% (down 0.03 points from 5.19 in the previous month).

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Abbas moves to suspend security coordination with Israel

On May 19th, President Abbas announced that the Palestinian Authority and PLO were “absolved, as of today, of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.” He made clear that this was in response to Netanyahu’s stated intention to annex territory in the West Bank. 

Abbas also announced that civil ties with Israel would be ended. As with the suspension of security coordination, it remains unclear what this will mean on the ground in the West Bank. Nonetheless, according to Omar Rahman, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, Abbas’ call for Israel to resume its obligations under international law as an occupying power indicates that “Abbas expects Israel to take over some portion of its responsibilities.” “Abbas did not mention the Palestinian Authority in his speech. Instead he referred to the State of Palestine under Israeli occupation,” said Rahman. “By ending the agreements but not explicitly disbanding the PA, [Abbas] reconstituted the PA as the State of Palestine in line with its status within the United Nations system,” and as part of an effort to derive increased legitimacy.

In the days following Abbas’ announcement, it emerged that the PA had in fact taken steps to downgrade security cooperation with Israel. Palestinian security forces were reportedly withdrawn from Areas A and B in the West Bank, as well as areas in and around East Jerusalem where officers had received special permission to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it was reported that at least some security coordination will continue and that Palestinian forces will continue acting to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel from the West Bank, but intelligence sharing unrelated to imminent attacks has been halted. The IDF has already begun restricting some operations in the West Bank in order to avoid clashes with PA forces.

According to Gen. (Res.) Yoav  Mordechai, former IDF spokesperson and head of COGAT, and Michael Milstein, Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center, the potential near-term consequences include “scuffles arising from Palestinian attempts to prevent the entry of Israelis into PA areas, as has occurred routinely until now … a decrease in the motivation of Palestinian security components to act against terror cells planning attacks against Israel … [and] increasing extremism among some Palestinian security (and Fatah party) cadres, interpreting their leadership’s militant declarations as a green light to promote violence against Israel on their own.”  

Palestinian journalist Ahmad Melhem called Abbas’ action “a leap in the dark, as there is no clear-cut Palestinian plan for how to dissolve the agreements with Israel.” Moreover, said political analyst Mohammad Younis, “the signed agreements have become a reality through daily mechanisms that rule the relationships between the two sides, and the PA cannot [unilaterally] revoke this reality.” 

With only limited steps taken as of yet, the extent to which security cooperation will be curtailed remains unclear. The potential consequences – for Israeli security, the stability of the PA, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general – have yet to be realized. However, the PA’s actions thus far demonstrate that Abbas is serious about moving forward with retaliatory measures in the face of Israeli annexation.

This past month also witnessed further escalation of violence in the West Bank, with potential for a spiraling effect. On May 30th, an unarmed 32-year-old disabled Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli Border Police officers in East Jerusalem, who claimed he was carrying a suspicious object. Earlier, an Israeli soldier was killed on May 12th by a rock thrown from a rooftop during a raid in a village near Jenin, the first Israeli military casualty of the year, and a 15-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli forces during protests one day later. Numerous car-rammings, stabbings, and other attacks also occurred in May.  

Currently, there is no sign that the violence is being driven by political developments related to annexation. However, it is clear that the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and lull in violence resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has largely subsided. Going forward, the violence could begin to affect Israeli security and the stability of PA, particularly if security coordination between the two sides is further downgraded.

With Israeli-Palestinian security coordination having been significantly downgraded, the relevant parameter decreased from 9 to 5 in May. West Bank violence remains at a relatively low level, and all relevant parameters remained the same.

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New Israeli government formed, setting stage for potential annexation

The official establishment of Israel’s new government on May 17th began the countdown to July 1st – the date specified in the coalition agreement for when Israel can enact measures to annex parts of the West Bank. According to Dan Rothem, CEO of Commanders for Israel’s Security, the agreement allows Netanyahu “maximum room to maneuver and minimizes the power of [any] opposition to slow him down. In essence, the coalition agreement basically says that whoever votes against annexation breaks down the coalition.” On May 25th, Netanyahu reiterated his intention to move forward with annexation, telling Likud lawmakers that “we have a target date in July to apply sovereignty and we will not change it.”

One of the outstanding questions regarding annexation is the extent to which members of the coalition will support or oppose such measures from the inside. Benny Gantz, now defense minister and alternate Prime Minister, who reportedly is opposed to unilateral annexation, has not publicly endorsed any such effort by the new government. Meanwhile, new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who has also reportedly been opposed to unilateral annexation, said that any such moves will be done in coordination with the international community, Palestinians, and regional allies, “while safeguarding peace agreements and Israel's strategic interests.”

Furthermore, warnings over annexation continue to be heard from Israeli security officials. Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, reportedly said that annexation could lead to the “shattering of security coordination and a wave of violence and terrorist attacks.” This came on the heels of concerns from Israeli defense officials, as well as from former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, about the potential for annexation to severely damage Israel’s relations with Jordan. Indeed, these types of assessments may prove to be another factor constraining efforts towards annexation. “Gantz, as minister of defense, can insist on asking the IDF to present its position on annexation,” said Shaul Arieli, an Israeli security expert and leading figure at the Geneva Initiative. “I’m sure that [IDF Chief of Staff] Aviv Kochavi and others will present all the security implications of such unilateral steps and it’s not easy to [move forward with annexation] against the IDF position.”

The Israeli government has yet to take significant steps towards annexation, and all relevant parameters thus remained the same in May. In the meantime, the Israeli government coalition now includes more figures supportive of a two-state solution, including former activists from the Geneva Initiative, and fewer who are ideologically opposed – with the pro-settler Yamina party now in the opposition. Therefore, the Israeli government parameter increased from 4 to 5.

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International and regional pushback against annexation continues

There was notable public opposition to potential Israeli annexation expressed by international and regional actors throughout the month, with particularly strong statements from Jordan. King Abdullah warned of “a massive conflict” with Israel if annexation were implemented. Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz subsequently announced that Jordan would be “forced to review all aspects of our relations with Israel" if it proceeds.

The messages emanating from Jordan began to stir debate over annexation among Israelis in May, among whom there had previously been relatively little public discussion. Israeli public opinion may be swayed further against annexation if Jordan is able to effectively convey the security-related costs to such a measure.

Alternatively, Saudi Arabia’s effort to dissuade annexation consisted of a relatively weak statement from the Foreign Ministry, announcing its “rejection of Israel’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and put it under Israeli sovereignty.” The UAE gave further indication of the unwillingness by Gulf States to confront Israel over this issue, sending a planeload of aid intended for Palestinians to Israel on May 19th. That an unprecedented step of this kind – a direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Israel – would be taken, in the wake of Netanyahu’s stated intention to move forward with annexation, sends a signal of acquiescence to any future Israeli actions.

Rhetorical opposition to annexation remained strong, however, from the UN, Russia, and most EU member states.  On May 15th, the EU Foreign Affairs Council deliberated on moving forward with a carrot-and-stick approach to Israel, involving the presentation of joint projects that would be damaged while imparting positive messages about “turning a new page” in EU-Israel relations. Some EU states reportedly discussed the exclusion of Israel from certain projects in the event of annexation, punitive measures that would not require a consensus among EU members. It was a clear signal that Israel could face real, material, and legal consequences for implementing any annexation.

As for the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 
after returning from a brief visit to Israel on May 13th, continued to describe annexation as “an Israeli decision” to make. However, Pompeo appeared to be applying a certain degree of caution to Netanyahu’s aggressive push for annexation, stating that the Israeli leadership “will need to find a way together to proceed.” It was evident that Pompeo left Israel with an understanding that support for annexation among the Israeli public and political arena is not homogenous. A State Department spokesperson subsequently clarified that deliberations over annexation “should be a part of the peace process … part of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

While international actors appear to be laying the groundwork for potential future action, there was no significant decision taken concerning potential West Bank annexation by Israel. All relevant parameters therefore remained the same in May.

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Israeli civil society takes aim at annexation from both left and right

As prospects for annexation rose with inauguration of the new Israeli government, groups among Israeli civil society began to mount opposition campaigns. The Geneva Initiative’s Two-State Coalition, a collective of 11 Israeli organizations, continued to coordinate local and international advocacy efforts. Alongside this, a special anti-annexation taskforce was established to spearhead efforts both publicly and behind-the-scenes. However, the overall effort by groups in favor of a two-state solution was marginal in May. Meanwhile, rising sentiment among settler leaders against the Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace” prompted moves to pressure Israeli ministers and MKs to push Netanyahu’s government to move forward with annexation that does not adhere to the Trump plan.

Efforts within Israeli civil society to oppose annexation were buttressed by new evidence showing that, in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the majority of Israeli Jews prefer policy options other than annexation. In a poll of Israeli Jews conducted by Commanders for Israel’s Security, a majority chose the option of either a two-state solution (40%), separation (22%), or status quo (13%), as opposed to the 26% who preferred annexation. While the poll shows that support for annexation is clearly on the rise (up from 17% in March 2019), the amount of Israeli Jews who prefer this policy option remains a distinct minority.

With little effort this month among Israeli civil society actors to push back against annexation in favor of a two-state solution, the relevant parameter decreased from 8 to 7.

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