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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Israel plans to lobby the incoming Biden administration to avoid confrontations over human rights and other contentious issues with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, senior Israeli defense officials tell me.

Why it matters: President-elect Biden has promised to put human rights and democracy at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and he skipped over all three when placing phone calls to the leaders of 17 countries after his election victory. He was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia during the campaign over the war in Yemen and human rights issues.

  • Israel sees its security and intelligence relationships with the three countries as central to its strategy to counter Iran and an important pillar in regional security.
  • Now, Israel fears that Biden will not only seek a deal with Iran, but also cool relations with America's Arab partners.

Driving the news: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt all welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s controversial decision this week to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terror organization.

  • Israel hasn’t taken any position on that decision — which some Democrats are already lobbying Biden to reverse — but has been placing new emphasis on the situation in Yemen in recent weeks.
  • That's due in part to threats from the Iran-backed Houthis on Israeli shipping in the Red Sea, but mainly because of the implications of further Iranian entrenchment in the country for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Israeli officials say.
  • What to watch: The Israelis know Biden will have a very different policy on Yemen than Trump, particularly when it comes to the Saudi role in the war. But they plan to encourage the new administration to make sure its policy shifts don't deepen Iranian influence or jeopardize regional cooperation on other issues.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli defense officials tell me they plan to make the case to the Biden administration that the region has changed over the last four years, with a new regional alignment forming as Israel strengthens its ties with Arab countries.

  • Israel hopes the new administration will prioritize that process over its concerns about the war in Yemen or human rights abuses.
  • On the one hand: The officials say Israel has encouraged Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take steps on human rights issues in order to improve the atmosphere for dialogue with the Biden administration.
  • On the other: They also plan to warn Biden's team that a crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt could push those countries away from the U.S. and toward Russia and China.

What they're saying: “We were very close to losing Egypt several years ago and our message to the Biden administration will be: 'Take it slow, dramatic changes took place, don’t come with predispositions and don’t harm relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE,'" a senior Israeli official told me.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - World

Biden picks Rob Malley as envoy for Iran

Malley (L) during Iran deal negotiations in Vienna, 2015. Photo: Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image

Rob Malley will serve as the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, working out of the State Department, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Friday.

Why it matters: Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama, took part in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and is a strong supporter of a U.S. return to the agreement. Reports of his likely selection led to sharp criticism from opponents of the deal like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), while former colleagues from the Obama administration rallied to Malley's defense.

Jan 28, 2021 - World

Biden turns the page on Trump's Israel-Palestine policies

Biden with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. Photo: David Furst/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration laid out its Israel-Palestine policy at the UN Security Council on Tuesday, highlighting the importance of repairing ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Driving the news: According to the new policies, the U.S. will resume aid to the Palestinians and reopen the PLO office in Washington and the consulate in Jerusalem.

Dave Lawler, author of World
13 mins ago - World

Global press freedom deteriorates amid pandemic

Data: Reporters Without Borders; Chart: Axios Visuals

Journalism is seriously restricted in 132 of 180 countries included in Reporters without Borders' annual Press Freedom Index — a particularly dangerous state of affairs during the pandemic.

Breaking it down: Nordic countries are ranked high on the list for having "good" press freedoms, while China, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea are at the bottom. The U.S. is ranked 44th.