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December20
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December, in short:

  • Restoration of Moroccan ties with Israel met with Palestinian silence: International law again undermined by US actions, as President Abbas shifts strategy toward Arab-Israeli normalization 
  • Palestinians readying for new reality under Biden administration: New poll shows signs of hope, while Abbas seeks regional support and PLO continues decline 
  • Flare-up of violence in the West Bank: Fatal incidents on both sides of the conflict mark a particularly deadly month for 2020

These events increased the Two-State Index (TSI) by 0.3% (up 0.01 points from 5.37 in the previous month).

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2020 Overview: Trump plan unveiled, annexation thwarted, and a new era approaches

2020 began with the TSI falling to new lows after the Trump administration revealed its “Vision for Peace,” a plan that adopted Israeli positions on all core final status issues and allowed for an eventual Israeli annexation of roughly 30% of the West Bank. However, PM Netanyahu’s subsequent annexation drive ultimately stalled and was fully suspended as part of Israel’s normalization deal with the UAE in August – a development that significantly increased the index. While the Trump administration’s actions in October – allowing US taxpayer money to be spent in Israeli settlements and for US citizens to claim “Jerusalem, Israel” as their birthplace on passports – combined with Israeli settlement expansion to produce another notable drop of the TSI, the election of Joe Biden as US president in November substantially increased the index once again. 

Also noteworthy were the significant shifts in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, with the relevant parameter rising to a new high in March as both sides worked together to combat the coronavirus. However, President Abbas suspended security and civil cooperation with Israel in May – significantly lowering the parameter – in an unprecedented response to Israel’s stated intention to annex parts of the West. This move was rescinded in November, but in the meantime the Palestinian economy was severely damaged by the PA’s refusal of tax funds collected by Israel, adding to the hardship inflicted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notable figures in 2020 included:

  • Palestinian casualties: 22 (131*)
  • Israeli casualties: 3 (lowest number in Israel’s history) (9*)
  • Palestinian attacks in the West Bank: 60 (51*)
  • Israeli arrests of Palestinians in the West Bank: 2,277 (2,328*)
  • Rockets and mortars fired at Israel by Gazan militants: 176 (1,378*)
  • Settlement housing units approved: 12,159 (8,457*)
  • Palestinian structures demolished by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Jan - Nov 2020): 782 (564*); 946 people displaced (816*)

(*2019 numbers)
Sources: B’tselem, Israel Defense Forces, Human Rights Watch, OCHA, Peace Now 

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Looking ahead to 2021, much will be determined by how the new US administration approaches and prioritizes its efforts related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President-elect Biden is expected to reverse the Trump administration’s policies on settlements and reestablish the US-Palestinian relationship, including the restoration of aid and the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem. His administration’s efforts will likely be buffeted by this month’s passage in Congress of the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, a substantial $250 million fund available for grassroots peacebuilding.

How Israel proceeds, meanwhile, may be largely determined by the outcome of new elections to be held on March 23rd. The shifting regional framework may lead to new momentum and potential progress on restricting Israel’s annexationist ambitions in the West Bank. For their part, the Palestinians will seek to adapt to a new era, with issues of leadership succession, elections, and an ever-elusive reconciliation continuing to predominate internally, while outwardly Abbas aims to rebuild relations with the US and reverse the Palestinians’ regional isolation.

In January 2020, the TSI was at 5.21, and after several fluctuations, the year ends with the Index ultimately rising to 5.38.

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Israel and Morocco restore ties while Palestinians alter approach

December witnessed a continuation of Arab-Israeli normalization trends, with Morocco now restoring and upgrading its bilateral relationship. The initiative was facilitated by the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a move that defies international norms regarding occupation and population transfer. “The international community [was] not comfortable at all with the decision on the part of Washington to essentially upend what had been several decades of fairly neutral policy on Western Sahara and simply declare outright that they were now going to recognize Moroccan sovereignty,” according to Dr. Sarah Feuer of INSS.

“[This] is a blow to stateless people everywhere,” wrote Tehila Wenger of the Geneva Initiative in The Times of Israel. “The trend towards recognizing unilateral applications of sovereignty over disputed territory is a trend that undermines international law as well as peaceful and bilateral conflict resolution.”

Unlike the previous recent normalization deals between Israel and Arab states, Morocco’s actions were met with little criticism from the Palestinians. Moroccan ruler King Mohammed VI spoke privately with President Abbas immediately after announcing the move, and coupled the announcement with a statement of strong support for the Palestinian cause and for a two-state solution. For his part, Abbas chose not to criticize Morocco and instructed other Palestinian Authority officials to do the same.

In a related development, the head of Dubai’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that UAE would allow imports of products made in Israeli settlements. His comments came after Bahrain’s Industry, Trade and Tourism Ministry walked back a previous statement by the country’s trade minister that “we will recognize [settlement products] as Israeli products.” The subsequent clarification committed Bahrain to “UN, Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation resolutions regarding settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.”

US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, along with the UAE’s apparent willingness to import products produced in Israeli settlements, decreased the Basic international norms parameter from 6 to 5 in December.

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Rise in hope among Palestinians as leadership prepares for a new era

In the wake of the US election last month, a new poll released by Palestinian Peace Coalition-Geneva Initiative on December 16th found that 49% of Palestinians currently prefer a two-state solution (with 20% choosing “other,” 11% ‘don’t know,” 11% “confederation”, and 9% “one-state”). In Gaza, support for two states was recorded at 56%, higher than in the West Bank (44%). Furthermore, 58% believe that the election of Joe Biden opens the door for negotiations in the context of a two-state solution (36% disagree, and 6% chose “other”). 

“The Palestinians see a new window of opportunity for the Middle East Peace Process with the success of Biden and given the announced program of the President-elect,” said PPC Director Nidal Foqaha. “This development has encouraged them to firmly express their view on the preferred solution – the two-state solution – which they believe to be the only way to put an end to the conflict and bring peace.” 

Throughout December, Palestinian efforts were underway to lay the groundwork for a new reality under the incoming Biden administration. After a December 19th meeting with Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers, along with a subsequent joint statement pledging to work to resume negotiations with Israel, FM Riyad Malki stated that “we are ready for cooperation and dealing with the new U.S. administration, and we are expecting that it would re-draw its ties with the state of Palestine.” Earlier in the week, Abbas visited Qatar as part of a similar effort to unite Gulf Arab states behind the Palestinian Authority as the post-Trump era draws near.

This round of diplomacy followed the resignation of Hanan Ashrawi – long a prominent fixture in Palestinian politics – from her position in the PLO Executive Committee. Palestinian commentator Daoud Kuttab stressed that Ashrawi’s departure was “definitely a blow to the Palestinian leadership, providing clear evidence that the PLO is no longer important, and that national decision-making is left to one man, without any meaningful involvement of the representatives of the people.” Coming on the heels of the death of PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in November, Ashrawi’s departure signals both the PLO’s steep decline as well as its imminent transition, with the Palestinian National Council set to hold a rare meeting to appoint successors to the two well-renowned figures.

These developments came as coronavirus infections reached new, critical highs in the West Bank and Gaza. Although the WHO and UAE have provided medical support in Gaza, the healthcare system is reportedly “at risk of collapse,” with 38,614 cases and 340 deaths in the Strip as of December 28th.

The rise in support for a two-state solution, along with new hope for the incoming US administration, increased the Palestinian public opinion parameter from 4 to 5. All other relevant parameters remained the same this month.

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Violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem

December marked a notably violent period in the West Bank and Jerusalem, particularly for 2020, which has witnessed a drastic downturn in fatalities among Israelis and Palestinians. On December 4th, a 13-year-old Palestinian was killed by IDF fire during a protest near Ramallah. On December 20th, a 52-year old Israeli woman was murdered outside the West Bank settlement of Tal Menashe, with a Palestinian suspect later arrested in Jenin by Israeli forces. The next day, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed after opening fire on Israeli forces in the Old City of Jerusalem, and a 16-year-old Israeli settler died in a car accident during a police chase after being caught throwing stones at Palestinians – an incident that led to continued, violent protests, including attacks on Palestinian cars throughout the West Bank.

These developments shifted the parameter related to IDF military actions in the West Bank from 3 to 4 in December.

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The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.
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