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November20
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November, in short:

  • Election of Joe Biden leads to anticipation of radically different US approach: Incoming administration expected to reverse numerous Trump administration policies, reestablish US-Palestinian relations, and support a viable two-state solution
  • Palestinian Authority resumes coordination with Israel after Biden’s win: Full security, civil, and financial coordination restored as efforts toward Fatah-Hamas reconciliation falter
  • Israeli government advances settlements in East Jerusalem: Actions appear timed to conclude new expansionary steps prior to Biden taking office, while Trump administration continues efforts to legitimate settlements
  • Entire West Bank village demolished by Israeli authorities: Destruction of Khirbet Humsa, condemned by international actors and US lawmakers, marks climax in recent spate of demolitions

These events increased the Two-State Index (TSI) by 2.9% (up 0.16 points from 5.21 in the previous month).

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Biden’s election win sets stage for sharp departure from Trump administration policies

The political landscape in the Middle East began a substantial shift in November with the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. Just prior to Election Day, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gave an interview outlining the Biden administration’s planned initial steps concerning Israel and the Palestinians. In line with a commitment to a two-state solution, Harris said that they would “oppose any unilateral steps that undermine that goal,” including annexation and settlement expansion, and “will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.”

Following Biden’s win, Palestinian Authority PM Shtayyeh stated on November 8th that President Abbas was prepared for “immediate engagement” with the incoming administration, in order to achieve “a just and lasting peace within the frame of two states and ending the Israeli occupation.” Days later, an aide to Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, made clear that the PA was ready to resume negotiations with Israel – a position later echoed by FM Riyad al-Maliki. It was reported that PA officials were in touch with the Biden transition team, with whom a number of understandings were reached regarding the new administration’s approach. 

“The Palestinian leadership will not have preconditions to engaging with the Biden administration,” according to Ibrahim Dalalsha, a Ramallah-based political consultant and former senior political advisor at the US Consulate General in Jerusalem “Their expectations are based on what was said publicly by Biden” regarding abandonment of the Trump plan, opposing settlement expansion, and rebuilding US-Palestinian relations.

On November 17th, Biden spoke with PM Netanyahu and emphasized his commitment to Israel’s future “as a Jewish and democratic state,” a clear indication of his support for a two-state solution. Biden made this support explicit in a subsequent phone call with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, expressing his hope for cooperation on “supporting a two-state solution.” While Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is unlikely to be a high priority for the new administration, “this is a conflict that forces its way back on the agenda,” noted Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the US Institute of Peace. “If the Trump administration [tries] to consolidate gains it is trying to make, along the lines of its goals and worldview on this conflict, the incoming administration might find its hand forced … to correct course in line with the priories it has set.”

Biden’s foreign policy team, which has already begun to take shape, is expected to be highly experienced and close to the president-elect personally, ideologically, and in regard to policy preferences. “The Biden administration will definitely work in a multilateral manner on different foreign policy issues,” said Dr. Nimrod Goren, the head of the Mitvim Institute. “This should also come into play in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking." Goren expects the new administration to take a number of measures to reestablish the US as credible mediator, including “stepping back from the Trump plan, reaffirming a commitment to the two-state solution, and voicing opposition to negative steps happening on the ground, while reversing steps taken by the previous administration in terms of funding [for the Palestinians], the Palestinian diplomatic representation in Washington, and the American representation in Jerusalem on the ground.”
 
In assessing the lay of the land for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, a new poll from the Geneva Initiative found that 48% of Israelis support a two-state solution (11% support one equal state; 11% support one unequal state), a decrease from the previous year’s poll. However, 49% want the US to advance negotiations (36% are opposed) and 39% support a reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas (with 30% opposed and 31% offering no opinion). For Geneva Initiative Director Gadi Baltiansky, this is the latest evidence that “the Israeli public is much more pragmatic and realistic than its government.”

The election of Joe Biden, who has made clear his support for two-state solution, along with his willingness to resume dialogue with the Palestinians and assistance to the PA, increased the US parameter from 2 to 5 in November. This development also restores the relevance of the US to efforts to achieve a two-state solution, moving up the weight of the US parameter from 4 to 5. Moreover, Biden’s election likely precludes any possibility of Israeli efforts to formally annex parts of the West Bank during the next US administration, shifting the relevant parameter from 6 to 7. Meanwhile, the drop in Israeli support for a two-state solution moved down the Israeli public opinion parameter from 6 to 5.

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In anticipation of Biden administration, PA resumes civil and security coordination with Israel

With a new era in sight following Biden’s victory, the restoration of full civil and security coordination between the PA and Israel was announced on November 17th. PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh declared that “the relationship with Israel will return to how it was” and that the PA would now accept the transfer of tax revenues – which comprise more than 60% of the PA’s budget – that had been refused by the PA in protest of Israeli intentions to annex parts of the West Bank. This will allow the PA to pay the full salaries of civil servants, who have received payments of only 50% for the previous five months. This move, which comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases in both the West Bank and Gaza, will also benefit ordinary Palestinians, who depend on Israeli-PA coordination in order to cross into Israel for medical procedures and other needs.

In the view of Neri Zilber, an expert on Palestinian security forces at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the election of Joe Biden “provided [the PA] cover to climb down” from the suspension of coordination with Israel. “I think it will have a positive effect on the ground, it will remove any chances of miscalculations or any undue friction between Palestinian and Israeli security forces … on a very practical level, [the situation] will be improved, and overall stability in the West Bank will improve.” The shift coincided with a quiet move to return the PA’s ambassadors to the UAE and Bahrain, who had been recalled in response to both states’ normalization agreements with Israel, along with a new agreement regarding tourists from the Gulf who visit the Al Aqsa Mosque. After months of refusing to engage with the UAE and Bahrain, these are initial signs of the PA’s willingness to move beyond the impasse and leverage their relations with both states.

Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz welcomed the PA’s actions, describing coordination as “a shared interest” for Israelis and Palestinians, a sentiment seconded by the UN’s Nickolay Mladenov. However, Hamas condemned the PA’s decision, labeling it “a stab in the back of the national efforts aimed at building up national partnerships.” It was further sign of how reconciliation efforts between the two factions have stalled. While representatives from both sides met in Cairo this month to discuss Palestinians unity efforts, the talks were overshadowed by the PA’s announcement on resuming coordination with Israel, and Fatah’s Jibril Rajoub subsequently blamed Hamas for their failure.

The resumption of civil and security coordination between the PA and Israel increased the relevant parameter from 5 to 8 in November, while the resulting infusion of tax revenues moved the PA economy parameter from 2 to 5. The PA’s move to resume ties with the UAE and Bahrain, enhancing the potential for these and other Arab states to play a constructive mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, shifted the Arab world parameter from 6 to 7. However, the declining prospects for Palestinians reconciliation decreased the Fatah-Hamas relations parameter from 4 to 3.

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Israel proceeds with new settlement expansion in East Jerusalem

On November 15th, the Israeli government began the bidding process for 1,257 housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Givat Hamatos. Construction there would prevent contiguity between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, severely damaging the viability of a future Palestinian state. The deadline for contractors to submit proposals is January 18th, only three days before the Biden administration will take office. Following Biden’s win, authorities in Jerusalem were reportedly instructed to speed up approval of settlement building plans, including in Givat Hamatos, Har Homa, Atarot and other neighborhoods.

Israel’s actions were harshly criticized by EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, as well as the UN’s Mladenov, and the German deputy ambassador to the UN stressed that “these developments are increasingly entrenching a one-state reality.” Israeli security expert Shaul Arieli described how the overall plan to destroy Palestinian contiguity involves “expanding Jerusalem, creating Jewish urban buffer zones between the centers of the Palestinian population, cutting off the Palestinian road system, and building [bypass roads] for Israeli traffic only.” Construction in Givat Hamatos “has a huge impact on the [prospects] for a two-state solution,” he warned.

Only days later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited a settlement winery in the West Bank and announced that settlement products sold in the US would be labeled as “made in Israel.” It was one of many Trump administration policies expected to be overturned by the Biden administration. However, Pompeo’s actions were yet another affront to international law as well as the norms established by previous US administrations and other actors over several decades. They were also an indication of what steps the current administration may take as January 20th approaches.

The Basic international norms parameter therefore decreased from 7 to 6 this month. Meanwhile, the move to expand Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem shifted the Palestinian civil life parameter from 6 to 5.

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Destruction of West Bank village brings focus on general increase in Israeli demolitions 

In what was described by the UN as "the largest forced displacement incident in over four years" in the West Bank, Israeli forces demolished the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khirbet Humsa on November 3rd. 73 Palestinians were left homeless, including 41 children, in a move that the EU condemned as “an impediment towards the two-state solution.” A group of 40 Democratic UN members of Congress responded by sending a letter to Pompeo demanding condemnation of Israel’s action, which it termed “a serious violation of international law.” The UN said Israel’s demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2020 have been the most in four years, leaving 869 Palestinians homeless. 

The destruction of Khirbet Humsa highlights a general escalation in Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes. However, all relevant parameters remained the same in November.

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