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July
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July, in short:

  • Netanyahu’s annexation effort stalls: The resurgence of coronavirus cases and shifting US political dynamics put Israeli moves on hold as international community continues push-back
  • Second wave of COVID-19 met by little Israeli-Palestinian cooperation: The effects of Israel’s push for annexation and the Palestinian response take a toll on efforts to combat the pandemic in the West Bank
  • Fatah and Hamas announce plans to jointly fight annexation: Press conference with leaders from both factions signals possible thawing of relations
  • US Democratic Party adopts new platform language on Israel-Palestine: While not seen as a radical shift, platform now goes further on policies related to advancing and preserving the option of a two-state solution

These events increased the Two-State Index (TSI) by .9% (up 0.05 points from 5.17 in the previous month).

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Israeli annexation measures on hold for now

July came and went with Israel taking no actions toward annexation of parts of the West Bank. Publicly, Netanyahu said little on the issue and there has been no sign of serious planning for an imminent move. For his part, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on July 5th that “right now we have to deal with the giant [COVID-19] crisis … and then we can continue to head to where we need to go [regarding annexation].” Meanwhile, an Israeli National Security Council report was received by the Knesset’s State Control Committee only in early July and was reportedly described as “rudimentary, general and superficial to the point of embarrassment.”

Underscoring this point, FM Gabi Ashkenazi, after being asked on July 29th if annexation was off the Israeli government’s agenda, responded that “no one is talking about it, justifiably”. Behind the scenes, a senior minister reportedly said that there has been “close to zero” cabinet-level discussion on the matter. There was also reported acknowledgement by Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin that the Trump administration – from whom Netanyahu is awaiting a green light on annexation – is focused primarily on domestic issues, with annexation now pushed to the back-burner. 

These developments came amid reports that the US would insist Israel make territorial concessions to the Palestinians alongside any annexation moves. David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said on July 16th that “we're calling on the Israelis not to do anything that would preclude the implementation” of the Trump plan. It has become increasingly clear that the views of White House senior advisor Jared Kushner are driving the administration’s stance on annexation. "[Kushner believes that] if you just do annexation, only cherry-pick annexation out of the Trump plan, you’re dooming the prospect of the plan ever serving as the platform for negotiations,” according to Nimrod Novik, a member of the Executive Committee at Commanders for Israel's Security. In a July 20th Newsweek interview, Kushner made no mention of annexation and claimed that the Trump plan was not “designed to provoke Palestinian intransigence so that Israeli PM Netanyahu … could do whatever he wanted in the West Bank.”

Elsewhere in Washington, legislation was proposed by 12 US Democratic senators that would ensure aid to Israel is not used to fund annexation. An amendment to the US defense budget for 2021, it is unlikely to progress further in the GOP-controlled Senate. However, along with recent letters from congressional Democrats threatening to condition aid to Israel, it was a significant sign of how any Israeli annexation moves could affect the US-Israel relationship. “Merely putting the issue of military assistance on the table is groundbreaking. It breaks a seal,” explained Rob Malley, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. “So in that sense, whether one agrees with the legislation, whether one thinks that the legislation will actually have an impact or not, it’s crossing a Rubicon.”

July also witnessed continued warnings from international actors to Israel over annexation, including personal appeals by President Macron of France and PM Johnson of the UK. Notably, a joint statement was issued by the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan on July 7th, indicating an emerging Arab-European effort to prevent the annexation. Furthermore, an unprecedented, implicit warning was given by Jordanian PM Omar Razzaz, who said that “[if Israel closes] the door to the two-state solution, I could very well look at this positively, if we’re clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution.” His comment came one day after Egyptian Foreign Minister visited Ramallah to show support for the Palestinians.

Efforts to fight annexation continued among Israeli civil society actors as well. These included new ad campaigns, public events, and a strong presence at recent rallies against the Netanyahu-led government. On July 13th, a meeting of 14 Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations, including the Geneva Initiative, was convened by the UN’s Nikolay Mladenov, during which efforts to push back on annexation were discussed and coordinated. For their part, the Palestinians held an anti-annexation rally in Gaza and the West Bank on July 1st, but were forced to cancel another planned for July 14th because of the rise in COVID-19 cases in the West Bank.

While the annexation effort is stalled at present, it appears that the timeframe for potential moves will remain open for the next few months. Imminent action appears highly unlikely, but a number of factors – such as a recession of the COVID-19 pandemic, or Israeli and US political dynamics – could cause the issue to resurface this fall. For July, however, all relevant parameters remained the same.

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Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on fighting pandemic continues to decline

With both Israel and the West Bank experiencing a severe second wave of coronavirus cases, efforts to respond to the pandemic were hampered by the suspension of all cooperation and contacts between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. During a UN Security Council meeting on July 21st, Special Envoy Mladenov emphasized the PA’s inability to deliver services and humanitarian assistance due to its ongoing refusal, in protest of potential annexation, to accept tax funds collected by Israel. In particular, the PA has been unable to implement containment measures for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which had previously been facilitated through coordination with Israel. 

A dispute was also sparked when Israeli forces demolished what Palestinians say was a COVID-19 testing center in Hebron, with the IDF denying that the building was set to be used for this purpose. Nidal Foqaha, Palestinian Director of the Geneva Initiative, lamented that “before the declarations about annexation, there was close coordination between the sides in dealing with corona. We exchanged information with Israel, learned from experience, and even recorded many cases of life-saving medical cooperation. Today, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers pass through Israel and back, and there is no joint mechanism to determine that they are not transmitting the virus when they pass from one side to another.”

Despite these developments, there was no fundamental change in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination from last month. The relevant parameter thus remained the same in July.

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Fatah and Hamas take initial steps towards rapprochement

On July 2nd, a press conference was held by Fatah’s Jibril Rajoub and Saleh al-Arouri of Hamas, during which the two announced a “joint plan of action” to counter Israeli annexation measures. There was little substance provided as to how the two factions would proceed, but plans were unveiled for a joint rally in Gaza that would include speeches by President Abbas and Hamas Chairman Ismail Haniyeh. At the press conference, Rajoub pledged that the two sides will seek to "become a model of unity … [that] the Palestinian people have been waiting for." He stressed that "annexation will be the bullet that will kill the two-state solution" and stated an intention to “increase the pressure” on Israel over the issue.

According to Haaretz columnist Jack Khoury, “their statements regarding future cooperation and a united front sounded credible, but they didn’t particularly sway Palestinian public opinion. During the 13 years of the rupture between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinians have heard hundreds of declarations by leaders of both sides about the end of the split and agreements at all levels … but no results have been seen.” 

Underscoring the latter point, Ramallah-based political analyst Mohammed Younis said that “this movement is not serious and meant only to threaten Israel.” He noted that “reconciliation requires serious steps in ending the division between the West Bank and Gaza, rebuilding and reuniting the political institutions and having political partnerships, [and] we have no sign of seeing it happening.” However, Hani al-Masri, director of the Masarat Center for Research and Studies, said that the joint effort "showed a possibility for the two sides to work jointly despite their internal feuds."

With even a symbolic step towards rapprochement representing progress for Fatah-Hamas relations, the relevant parameter increased from 1 to 2 this month.

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New platform language for US Democratic Party reflects shifting stance on Israel-Palestine

The US Democratic Party finalized its policy platform on July 28th, with the result featuring notable changes related to Israel and the Palestinians. Along with a “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself, and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding,” the platform now states that “Democrats recognize the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian” and expresses support for “a negotiated two-state solution that ensures Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state with recognized borders and upholds the right of Palestinians to live in freedom and security in a viable state of their own.” It also makes clear that “Democrats oppose any unilateral steps by either side—including annexation—that undermine prospects for two states,” opposes “settlement expansion”, and vows to “restore U.S.-Palestinian diplomatic ties and critical assistance to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, consistent with U.S. law.”

While the changes did not go as far as some progressives in the party advocated for, they represented “significant and overdue strides while sustaining the unity of our party,” said former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who was part of the platform’s drafting committee. “For the first time, we say clearly … our opposition to Israeli settlement expansion,” he asserted. “For the first time, we state clearly and by name our opposition to Israel’s annexation of territory of the West Bank. We state clearly that we will continue to stand against incitement and terror, and for the first time, we recognize the right of Palestinians to live in a state of their own.”

According to Michael Koplow, Policy Director at the Israel Policy Forum, the platform featured “some important strides forward from previous Democratic planks on Israel … [including] the tacit acknowledgement that the U.S. must have an independent relationship with the Palestinian people.” Koplow noted that “the plank speaks of supporting the Palestinian people and of the right of Palestinians to freedom and security in their own viable state.… There is no question that this all represents a progressive shift on Israel.”

Therefore, the improvement of the Democratic Party’s positions relative to policies that help facilitate a two-state solution increased the United States parameter from 2 to 3 in July.

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