September, in short:

  • Normalization deals signed between Israel and Gulf states: Agreements with UAE and Bahrain fail to mention two-state solution, while Palestinian officials decry them as “a stab in the back”
  • Fatah and Hamas continue reconciliation moves: Recent steps culminate in decision to hold legislative elections in six months
  • New polls reveal Israeli and Palestinian views in wake of normalization agreements: Palestinian support for two-state solution declines as Israeli public opinion holds steady
  • International actors reengage on Israeli-Palestinian conflict: UN and numerous states express support for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following suspension of annexation
  • Palestinian economy continues to suffer effects of COVID-19 pandemic: New statistics reveal extent of the toll in West Bank and Gaza
  • More evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem: Homes in neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah ordered to be turned over to Israeli settler organizations, while De facto settlement freeze continues 

These events decreased the Two-State Index (TSI) by .3% (down 0.02 points from 5.41 in the previous month).

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Israel signs agreements with UAE and Bahrain in Washington

September 15th witnessed the signing of normalization agreements, at a White House ceremony, between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain. Bahrain, whose move to normalize relations was announced only four days earlier, signed a “declaration of peace,” citing Israel’s suspension of West Bank annexation as their reason for doing so. Notably, neither agreement included mention of a two-state solution nor an independent state of Palestine, although representatives of both countries have reaffirmed their support for these goals in recent public statements.

The Israel-UAE agreement did include a commitment to a “just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both peoples.” Reference was also made to the Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace,” which is broadly based on the two-state concept. The agreement was also free of language referring to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that had been part of its announcement and was seen as potentially legitimizing non-Muslim prayer at the site.

Furthermore, it was reported that the UAE received assurance from the Trump administration that the US would not support any Israeli annexation moves before 2024 at the earliest. This did little to mollify Palestinian opposition to the deals, underscored by the launching of missiles into Israel – during the White House ceremony – by Palestinian militants in Gaza. 

The Palestinian Authority fiercely condemned the signings as “disgraceful.” Nonetheless, an effort to elicit a similar response from the Arab League failed, with the PA subsequently quitting its temporary chairmanship of the organization in protest. President Abbas followed up with an address to the UN General Assembly on September 25th, in which he called for an international conference in 2021 that would launch a “genuine peace process.”

In examining how the agreements could create leverage in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Geneva Initiative co-chair Yossi Beilin recommended in Haaretz that the Arab Peace Initiative be “upgraded into an intensive peace pressure group, empowered by good relations with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and which is able to shuttle between them, talk to them seriously, and help each of them walk the extra mile towards peace.”

While the normalization deals may allow for new leverage with Israel, it is questionable at present whether they can have similar results with the Palestinians. The PA is wary of the role of Mohammed Dahlan, an Abbas rival who lives in Dubai and serves as an advisor to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. This was evident when, on September 22nd, PA security forces detained a number of his supporters in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the UAE has only marginal relations with Hamas, having previously declared the group to be a terrorist organization. 

With the effects of the normalization agreements on prospects for a two-state solution still unclear, all relevant parameters remained the same in September.


Palestinians take further steps toward reconciliation

Israel’s normalization agreements continued to drive the Palestinians toward reconciliation in September. While a planned joint rally in Gaza failed to materialize, the month began with Abbas holding a September 3rd meeting of all Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The meeting led to the formation of a coordinating committee and a commitment to producing a strategic resistance plan. 

Palestinian commentator Daoud Kuttab assessed in Al-Monitor that, “politically, not only are [Fatah and Hamas] exhausted and the pressure on them huge, but the Trump administration’s unilateral vision plus the Israeli efforts to bypass Palestinians with two Gulf states have jolted the most radical among Palestinians to take a deep look at what is happening.” Among other signs of improved Fatah-Hamas relations in September, the most significant was a meeting in Istanbul between senior officials of both factions, followed by an announcement on September 24th that Palestinian elections would be held in the next six months. Legislative elections, which were last held in 2006, would come first, with subsequent presidential and PLO elections. 

The two factions appear to be attempting to convey to the Palestinian public the gravity of the situation facing Palestinians – one of unprecedented weakness internationally – and to demonstrate the seriousness of their new approach. “Fatah and Hamas understood that the only card that the Palestinians [can play] today is intra-Palestinian reconciliation,” according to Bashar Azzeh, a member of the PLO Palestine National Council. 

These developments increased the Fatah-Hamas relations parameter from 3 to 4 in September.


Palestinian public opinion shifts in wake of normalization agreements, while Israeli views hold steady

A new poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, conducted from September 9th to 12th, found that Palestinian support for a two-state solution dropped to 39%, a decline of six points from three months prior. On the other hand, a poll from the Geneva Initiative showed that a strong plurality of Israelis support negotiations with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, with 49% in favor and 35% against. GI Director-General Gadi Baltiansky was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying that the latter poll demonstrates an understanding by the Israeli public “that even during the corona days, a peace process with the Palestinians is needed and that it may even help in dealing with the current crisis. The call is clear: after the Gulf states, now it’s time to talk to our immediate neighbors.”

The shift in Palestinian public opinion decreased the relevant parameter from 5 to 4 in this month, while the Israeli public opinion parameter remained the same.  


International community reengages following suspension of Israeli annexation

With the prospect of annexation currently off the table, international actors took steps to reengage with Israel and the Palestinians. On September 16th, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres publicly urged both parties to restart negotiations, reiterated support for a two-state solution, and stated that the UN was seeking both to promote direct Israeli-Palestinian contact and to launch a meeting of the Quartet (the UN, US, EU, and Russia). Guterres was joined in his efforts by French President Macron, who spoke at the UNGA on September 22nd and stressed the need for “a decisive negotiation which will allow the Palestinians to finally have their rights.” 

The same day, Russian FM Lavrov also advocated for direct negotiations, noting that, despite the suspension of annexation, “the [Israeli-Palestinian] problem is still there.” Two days later, an additional call for restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was jointly issued by the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, France, and Germany. Earlier in the month, German Minister of State Niels Annen visited Israel and the Palestinians (and met with the leaders of the Geneva Initiative) to push a similar message.

The increase in international engagement regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is a positive sign and indicates that such efforts will continue, but was not accompanied by any actions. Therefore, all relevant parameters remained in place this month.


Coronavirus severely threatens Palestinian economy

The spike in COVID-19 cases, in both the West Bank and Gaza, continued to wreak havoc on the Palestinian economy. A new report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development warned of “grave fiscal implications” from lockdown measures, with donor support at “the lowest in more than a decade.” The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) now predicts that the Palestinian GDP will decline by 13.5% this year, and trading on the Palestinian stock market has declined by 70%. For the fourth consecutive month, only 50% of public salaries were paid by the PA, which continues to refuse the transfer of tax funds from Israel in protest of potential annexation (a position upheld by the PA due to annexation being officially “suspended” by Israel instead of cancelled).

The UN’s warning has reportedly been echoed by senior Israeli security officials, who fear a potential outbreak of violence. Issues related to the suspension of Israeli-Palestinian security coordination are contributing to economic woes in the West Bank, preventing work permits from being issued and hampering trade between Israel and the PA.

In Gaza, which has remained under lockdown since the end of August, unemployment has reached 46%, one of the highest rates in the world, while COVID-19 cases have surged to over 2,800. However, the Israel-Hamas ceasefire brokered in August was maintained through most of September. The rockets launched from Gaza during the Washington signing ceremony, and Israel’s airstrikes in response, did not lead to a wider outbreak of violence.

While the Palestinian economy faces monumental challenges, the relevant parameters did not shift in September. The continuing ceasefire between Israel and Hamas decreased each of the two parameters related to Palestinian and Israeli attacks in Gaza from 6 to 5.


Evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem continue

On September 9th, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s court ruled that four Palestinian families in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem must be evicted and their homes turned over to Israeli settlers. Within a week, two more court decisions were decided in favor of settlers in East Jerusalem, leading to evictions orders for three more Palestinian families and an elderly man. According to Peace Now, another 70 Palestinian families in East Jerusalem are now in court on evictions cases.

Notably, September marked yet another month in which the Settlement Higher Planning Council was not convened to advance construction in the West Bank. The council has not met since February, although it was reported that Netanyahu has called for a meeting next month in order to approve advancement of 5,000 new settlement homes. 

While further evictions could eventually affect the ability to create a viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, all parameters related to this issue and to settlement expansion remained the same in September.

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