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Meir Ben Shabbat. Photo: Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty

Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat discussed Iran with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a secure video call on Thursday, according to two Israeli officials.

Why it matters: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Ben Shabbat to lead Israel's talks on Iran with regional partners and world powers — most importantly, with the Biden administration, the Israeli officials say.

The big picture: The Biden administration is drafting its strategy on the Iran nuclear deal and broader strategy toward Tehran. Israel is concerned Biden will return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift sanctions.

  • The Biden administration has said it intends to do so if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, but will consult with Israel before it makes any decisions.

Thursday's call was the second between Sullivan and Ben Shabbat, but was much longer than the previous call and included several other officials on both sides, the Israeli officials say.

  • National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne confirmed the call took place but didn’t provide further details.

Behind the scenes: There has been an internal struggle within the Israeli government between Ben Shabbat and Mossad director Yossi Cohen over who would lead the talks with Biden on Iran.

  • Cohen lobbied for the "Iran czar" position, claiming only he could convince the U.S. administration not to return to the Iran nuclear deal, sources familiar with the situation told me.
  • Several Israeli reporters close to Cohen published stories saying he would be appointed, or had already been. One report suggested Cohen met Biden transition officials during a visit to Washington in January. Biden’s team flatly denied that.
  • White House officials were puzzled by the constant leaks about Cohen’s alleged contacts with the Biden administration but didn’t comment.

After the first phone call between Sullivan and Ben Shabbat last month, Sullivan issued a statement saying he'd invited Ben Shabbat to start a strategic dialogue. That gave Ben Shabbat an advantage over Cohen.

  • Several days ago, Netanyahu decided to hand the Iran czar role to Ben Shabbat, though that could change after Israel's March 23 elections.
  • Israeli officials think Netanyahu’s decision was partially due to Cohen’s tense relations with other senior national security officials, like IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. Others think Cohen’s media campaign hurt his case.

What’s next: Ben Shabbat is expected to hold several interagency meetings in the coming week to draft the Israeli strategy on the Iran nuclear deal issue.

  • The next step will be a high-level meeting on Iran including Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials.

Go deeper

Feb 10, 2021 - World

Netanyahu tries to delay corruption hearings until after Israel's election

Netanyahu talks to his lawyer ahead of Monday's hearing. Photo: Euven Castro/POOL/AFP via Getty

Netanyahu and his allies are publicly pressuring the judges in his corruption trial to postpone the presentation of evidence and witnesses until after Israel's elections on March 23.

What he's saying: “Everybody knows the cases against me are rigged," Netanyahu claimed on Monday. "This is why I don’t think the hearing of witnesses in my trial should begin before the elections because even if it is not the intention, it would look like a flagrant interference in the elections."

Biden holds first call as president with China's Xi Jinping

Biden and Xi in 2012, when both were serving as vice president. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty

President Biden on Wednesday evening held his first call with Chinese President Xi Jinping since taking office, raising thorny issues including human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The big picture: Ahead of the call, senior administration officials offered reporters the most detailed portrait to date of Biden’s policies toward China, and how they will build on — and diverge from — Donald Trump’s approach.

2 hours ago - Health

Biden says it's "not the time to relax" after touring vaccination site

President Biden speaking after visiting a FEMA Covid-19 vaccination facility in Houston on Feb. 26. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said Friday that "it's not the time to relax" coronavirus mitigation efforts and warned that the number of cases and hospitalizations could rise again as new variants of the virus emerge.

Why it matters: Biden, who made the remarks after touring a vaccination site in Houston, echoed CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who said earlier on Friday that while the U.S. has seen a recent drop in cases and hospitalizations, "these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."