March, in short:

  • No clear victor in Israeli election: Small increase in MKs supporting a two-state solution, with favorability among right-wing voters found in new poll
  • US and international diplomatic efforts underway: The Biden administration proceeds with Palestinian re-engagement, while poll finds US public opinion moving toward more even-handed positions
  • Formal investigation announced by ICC: Court’s decision reportedly prompts Israeli restraint warnings along with retaliation against Palestinians
  • New developments regarding Palestinian elections: Fatah and Hamas reach further agreement, poll shows neither would win legislative election, and Fatah splits into separate lists as Marwan Barghouti shakes up race
  • Israel begins vaccinating West Bank Palestinians: Workers in Israel and settlements receive doses as both West Bank and Gaza hit hard by COVID-19 

These events increased the Two-State Index (TSI) by 1.4% (up 0.08 points from 5.55 in the previous month).

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Aftermath of Israeli elections

The Israeli election on March 23rd failed to produce a clear winner, but it did lead to a modest increase of support for a two-state solution within the Knesset. The Knesset will retain the same number of MKs who support a two-state solution, but now features more vocal supporters – including members of Yesh Atid, whose platform explicitly supported a two-state solution for the first time. Thirty-two MKs in the new Knesset have participated in Geneva Initiative (GI) activities, and two newly-elected MKs now join others as current members of the GI Steering Committee.

However, the Knesset will now also include six seats for the Religious Zionism party, which espouses a far-right, maximalist agenda that emphasizes expulsion of Arabs. The other new party to enter the Knesset, New Hope led by Gideon Sa’ar, also opposes a two-state solution. Yet, commitment to settlement expansion was not a vote-getter for Netanyahu, whose Likud party received 300,000 fewer votes than in the previous election despite his pledge to legalize West Bank settlement outposts if re-elected. In fact, new polls from GI and the Israel Democracy Institute both found relatively strong support for a two-state solution among voters for right-wing parties.

With the composition of the next Knesset undergoing no major changes in regard to support for a two-state solution, all relevant parameters remained the same this month.


US diplomatic approach takes shape amid shifts in opinion

The Biden administration’s positions came into sharper focus this month with the publication of a document outlining its plans for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for resetting the US relationship with the Palestinians in particular. The document commits the US to advancing “the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution,” engaging with the international community through the UN and Quartet, moving to roll back “steps by the prior administration that bring into question our commitment or pose real barriers to a two-state solution,” and seeking “to obtain a Palestinian commitment to end payments to individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.” Furthermore, the document includes plans for re-starting funding for UNRWA in “late March or early April,” following the provision of $15 million for coronavirus relief in the West Bank and Gaza that the administration announced on March 25th. It was also reported at the end of the month that the US had allocated an additional $75 million for projects in the West Bank and Gaza.

“The aid will be restored, it’s just a matter of going through the process,” said former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. “[But the] Palestinians are going to have to pass a law or some executive decree [to] reform their payment system to comply with US law. They have the legislation, they’re ready to do it, it’s awaiting a decision [by President Abbas].” Indyk stressed that “the Palestinians are desperate to restore their relationship with the US [because] they know that the US in the only country that can deliver Israel when it comes to Palestinian requirements.”

Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll found notable shifts in American public opinion related to Israel and the Palestinians. Overall favorability towards the Palestinian Authority has reached a high point of 30% (increasing from 23% in 2020), with a rise from 9% to 19% among Republicans. Moreover, while 64% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Israel, a majority (53%) now say that more pressure should be put on Israel to make compromises necessary to solving the conflict. Regarding relevant public opinion among Israelis and Palestinians, the GI poll found that 51% of Israelis support an effort by the Biden administration to renew of negotiations (with 29% opposed, 20% no opinion), while 44% of Palestinians support a renewal of negotiations (with 48% opposed) in a new PCPSR poll.

At the end of March, the US State Department released its annual report on global human rights practices, which included the word “occupation” in reference to Israel’s control over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, and also mentioned “a future Palestinian state”. This language was reinserted into the report after its removal by the Trump administration. There were also various diplomatic efforts this month, beginning with a March 11th meeting between the UN, EU, Egypt, Jordan, Germany and France on taking “small steps” towards reviving the peace process. On March 23rd, the Middle East Quartet met to discuss the revival of “meaningful [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations” as Russia pushed for the group’s integration of the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain as members. The next day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as saying that his government would “invite Palestinian and Israeli public figures to have talks in China,” while reiterating his country’s support for a two-state solution.

The movement in US public opinion, along with the Biden administration’s actions, increased the United States parameter from 7 to 8 in March.


ICC proceeds with investigation

Following last month’s decision by the International Criminal Court to affirm its jurisdiction to investigate Israelis and Palestinians for alleged war crimes, the chief prosecutor announced on March 3rd that a formal investigation would be opened. Israel and the PA were sent official notification on March 9th and given one month to respond. After Netanyahu labeled the move “undiluted anti-Semitism and the height of hypocrisy,” the US State Department responded that it is “firmly opposed” to the decision and asserted that “the ICC has no jurisdiction over this matter.” The issue was also discussed in a call between Netanyahu and Vice-President Harris.

The ICC’s actions appear to have already impacted Israeli decision-making, with the National Security Council reportedly recommending that Israel exercise caution on building in West Bank settlements, refrain from evacuating the Palestinian village of Khan al Ahmar, and work to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. There were also signs of Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians, as FM al-Maliki was stripped of a special travel permit for senior Palestinian officials and his entourage questioned by Israeli intelligence after returning from a visit to the ICC on March 21st.

These developments shifted the Legal institutions and proceedings parameter from 5 to 6, while both the Basic international norms and International decisions/resolutions parameters increased from 6 to 7.

Palestinians continue on path to elections

Numerous steps were taken this month toward holding Palestinian elections, including a March 1st decree from President Abbas to form an election court, and agreement by Fatah and Hamas to an electoral code of conduct. There was a major shake-up in the race when, prior to the conclusion of the submission of electoral lists on March 31st, Marwan Barghouti – the imprisoned former leader of Fatah’s Tanzim militia who has long polled as the most popular Palestinian politician – announced that he would form a list with Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat who was recently ousted from Fatah over his opposition to Abbas. 

Meanwhile, Hamas emerged from internal elections having re-elected Yahya Sinwar as the organization’s leader in Gaza.  While the election – a close result that required four rounds of voting – revealed disappointment in Sinwar’s efforts to improve quality of life in Gaza, it nonetheless allowed Hamas, which submitted its own electoral list on March 29th, to enter the election campaign with a unified front. Fatah, on the other hand, is now split into numerous factions.

A poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) published on March 23rd showed that Fatah and Hamas would each fall well short of a parliamentary majority (38% support Fatah, 22% Hamas), providing clear evidence that a unity government will be required. The obstacles to this will be numerous, as underscored by a meeting between Abbas and the head of Shin Bet during which the Palestinian leader was reportedly warned against any such partnership with Hamas. The PCPSR poll also showed that Barghouti’s entry into the race would split Fatah’s vote dramatically. 

A variety of issues remain to be resolved, but the poll found that 61% of Palestinians now expect legislative elections to take place. “This is assuming a life of its own, this is generating momentum, and with every day that passes the political cost of reversing the elections becomes higher,” assessed Ghaith Al-Omari, senior fellow at WINEP and former advisor to Abbas. However, the poll also showed that 48% of Palestinians believe the elections will not be free and fair, and over 60% believe either Hamas or Fatah will not accept the results if the other side wins. Al-Omari warned that “Hamas will not give up meaningful control over Gaza, and for its part, the PA has done nothing to indicate that it’s willing to give up power in the West Bank. So we’re going into an election that … [is] very questionable in terms of the outcome.”

The Palestinians continue to be on pace to hold legislative elections on May 23rd, with no major disagreements emerging between Fatah and Hamas. Therefore, all relevant parameters remained the same in March.
Israel ramps up vaccine assistance to Palestinians

On March 8th, Israel began providing coronavirus vaccinations to Palestinians who work across the Green Line and in settlements, ultimately vaccinating 120,000 by the month’s end. Israel is also discretely vaccinating more Palestinians than has been made known publicly. These efforts came as the West Bank faced a surge in infections that overwhelmed local hospitals, while Gaza entered its own second wave of the pandemic. On March 17th, the PA received its first shipment from the global COVAX sharing program, containing 62,000 vaccine doses. 

These vaccination efforts, along with the renewal of US aid to the Palestinians, increased the West Bank economy parameter from 4 to 5.
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