Axios from Tel Aviv

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June 22, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,102 words, 8 minutes) explores what Israel's government collapse means for President Biden's upcoming visit, as well as the Palestinians. It also brings you a U.S.-Israel-Saudi scoop, before giving a roundup of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's regional tour, including to Turkey.
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1 big thing: Biden's balancing act in Israel

Biden
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Israeli government's collapse will force President Biden to navigate a sensitive balancing act during his upcoming visit to Israel, which will take place three months before early elections.

The big picture: The survival of Prime Minster Naftali Bennett's government, which sidelined former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the top priority of the Biden administration when it came to its policy on Israel.

Driving the news: Over the last year, Biden has worked closely with Bennett, including hosting him at the White House. But when the U.S. president arrives in Israel on July 13, he will be greeted by acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

  • Lapid will probably try to use the many hours of live coverage in the Israeli media during the visit as a boost to his election campaign.

The other side: A senior U.S. official said Biden will likely also meet Netanyahu, Lapid’s main political rival and opposition leader.

  • The two politicians go back 40 years and have had their ups and downs. An announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem as then-Vice President Biden visited Israel in March 2010 created a crisis between the two leaders.
  • Biden waited a month after taking office to call Netanyahu for the first time as president.

What they're saying: Biden told reporters yesterday there are no changes in his plan to visit Israel.

  • Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to both Lapid and Bennett over the phone to discuss the political situation in Israel and reassure them that Biden's visit is going ahead as planned, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
  • Blinken "underscored our respect for democratic processes and reiterated our unwavering commitment to the strong U.S.-Israel strategic relationship," as well as the two countries "continuing close coordination on regional and global issues," State Department spokesperson Ned Price added.

Between the lines: Many U.S. presidents have intervened in Israeli elections in some way, but Biden will likely try to avoid that perception, making the visit more about highlighting good relations with the Israeli people than with a specific government, according to U.S. officials.

  • Worth noting: Although Bennett will no longer be the prime minister, Israeli officials say he will likely meet Biden and join Lapid in some of the events during the visit.

What to watch: Lapid is expected to travel to New York in September — a month before the Israeli elections — for the meeting of the UN General Assembly, where he will likely try to get another meeting with Biden on the sidelines.

2. Scoop: U.S. working on normalization "road map" for Saudi Arabia, Israel

Saudi flag
Photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images

The White House has been working on a “road map for normalization” between Israel and Saudi Arabia ahead of President Biden’s visit to the Middle East next month, according to four U.S. sources briefed on the issue.

Why it matters: The trip could show that the Biden administration has continued to help foster progress on the warming of relations between Israel and the Arab world after the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords, which led to normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.

Driving the news: The White House last week held a briefing with think tank experts about Biden’s trip to the region and floated the theme of a “road map for normalization” without elaborating, the four sources said.

  • The White House said during the briefing that there will not be an agreement before Biden's visit, but they are working on it and the president will discuss it with Israeli and Saudi leaders during the trip, the sources said.

What they're saying: The White House thinks that any road map for normalization will take time and will be a long-term process, a different source briefed on the issue said. Another source briefed on the matter described the strategy as a step-by-step approach. 

  • A White House National Security Council spokesperson said they "support broadening and deepening Arab-Israeli ties."
  • A senior Israeli official said he doesn’t expect a major breakthrough regarding normalization with Saudi Arabia during Biden’s trip, but stressed an agreement to allow Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for flights to India and China is very close.
  • “We do not view Israel as an enemy, but rather as a potential ally in the many interests that we can pursue together, but some issues must be resolved before we can reach that," Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said earlier this year, per Bloomberg, citing the official Saudi Press Agency.

Catch up quick: The Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a potential deal to finalize the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, as Axios first reported.

  • If successful, the mediation efforts could lead to separate normalization steps.

The bottom line: A U.S. source briefed on the White House plans said, with the roadmap, he thinks the White House is trying to lower expectations about what is possible at the moment and what isn’t and focus on starting a process.

3. Part II: Vision for regional "integrated missile defense"

Benny Gantz
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

During Biden's visit to the Middle East, the White House also plans for the president to discuss a vision for “integrated missile defense and naval defense” among the U.S., Israel and several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, four U.S. sources told me.

The big picture: Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz said during a hearing of the foreign relations and security committee in the Knesset on Monday that the U.S. and Israel are working on an initiative called “The Middle East Air Defense."

  • He added that Biden’s visit will give the initiative another push.
  • Gantz said the initiative focuses on working together with the U.S. central command and other countries in the region to counter drone, rocket and cruise missile attacks by Iran and its proxies.
  • A senior Israeli official said the idea is to create a regional network of radars, sensors and air defense systems that will be connected in order to give early warning and intercept attacks.
  • Gantz said several Iranian attacks in the region have already been prevented. A senior Israeli official said one such attack was a downing of an Iranian drone over Iraq in February 2021 by U.S. forces using Israeli intelligence.

What to watch: The political instability in Israel and the early elections could change the calculations in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region regarding normalization steps

4. Palestinian hopes of "political horizon" dashed

Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Palestinian officials believe that the collapse of the Israeli government will delay any prospect of a “political horizon” or diplomatic process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al-Ayyam political reporter Abdel Raouf Arnaout writes for Axios from Ramallah.

Why it matters: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had hoped that President Biden’s trip to the region would lead to some kind of a political breakthrough in the conflict.

State of play: Since the formation of the current Israeli government a year ago, many high-level Palestinian-Israeli meetings have been held, but they were all limited to discussing daily life and economic and security issues.

  • Palestinian officials said that Bennett rejected many initiatives to discuss launching a political process.
  • The Biden administration also informed the Palestinians in the last year that despite the U.S. commitment to the two-state solution, the time was not ripe to launch a political process between the two parties, the officials said.

Yes, but: Palestinian officials see a glimmer of hope in Yair Lapid, who is expected to become acting Israeli prime minister next week. Lapid said in December 2021 that it is no secret that he supports the two-state solution.

  • The two Palestinian officials said that Abbas would not oppose a meeting with Lapid if he offered to meet the Palestinian president on the basis of a two-state solution.

Between the lines: Palestinian officials also see the political crisis in Israel as an opportunity for the Biden administration to fulfill several of its promises after postponing some steps, such as reopening the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem — a move Israel opposes.

  • Waiting to reopen the consulate can create a "reality in which the elections may produce an Israeli right-wing government that makes the matter more complicated," a senior Palestinian official said.
  • The State Department said earlier this month that it remains "committed to reopening our consulate in Jerusalem."
  • The senior Palestinian official also said that the political developments in Israel put more responsibility on the Biden administration to prevent any escalation in settlement building or another escalation on the ground.

What they're saying: Palestinian officials, who are publicly calling the Israeli elections an "internal affair," said they are closely watching developments in Israel, including the prospects for a purely right-wing government after the elections.

  • "The elections are an internal Israeli affair that does not concern us. We do not care who will come. We will deal with any Israeli government that commits to peace," another senior Palestinian official close to President Abbas said.

5. Israeli lawmakers take first step toward dissolving parliament

Bennett and Lapid
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid at a press conference on June 20. Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli Knesset voted in favor today in a preliminary hearing on calling an early election. The final three votes are expected next week.

Why it matters: Once an early election is called, Lapid will assume the post of acting prime minister and Bennett will become the alternate prime minister.

State of play: The coalition wants to pass the remaining three votes as soon as possible to prevent the opposition from stalling or from trying to get 61 lawmakers for an alternative coalition in the current Knesset.

  • Member of Knesset Nir Orbach, one of the defectors from Bennett’s party who controls the committee that discusses the early elections bill, has been trying to stall the remaining votes.
  • Orbach, who is not likely to be part of the next Knesset, is attempting to form an alternative right-wing coalition under Netanyahu. The chances of that happening appear to be very low.

At the same time, the current coalition wants to push for a swift vote on a law that would prevent a member of Knesset who has been indicted from getting the mandate to form a coalition.

  • This bill targets Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges. Bennett didn’t allow the bill to be tabled until today. The chances that the law passes before the Knesset formally dissolves are low, and if it passes, it is likely to be challenged by the supreme court.

What to watch: One of the issues that will be negotiated in the coming days will be the date of the election. The most likely date is Oct. 25, but dates in early November are also a possibility.

6. MBS travels to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey ahead of Biden visit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Turkey on June 22. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman this week visited Egypt and Jordan to discuss regional issues and sign business deals before traveling to Turkey to continue normalizing relations after a long diplomatic crisis over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Why it matters: The tour, MBS' first official foreign trip in more than three years, comes several weeks ahead of President Biden's planned visit to the kingdom for talks with the Saudi leadership and a summit with nine Arab leaders.

The big picture: MBS arrived in Cairo on Monday and had a series of meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

  • During the visit, Saudi and Egyptian companies signed business deals worth $7.7 billion. The Saudis committed to push for another $30 billion in Saudi private sector investments in Egypt.

A day later, MBS arrived in Amman for his first visit to Jordan since being named crown prince in 2017. He met with King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah to discuss Saudi investments and ways to help Jordan deal with its economic crisis.

  • The visit came a year after the arrest in Jordan of one of MBS’ advisers, Bassem Awadallah, who was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges related to what King Abdullah has described as a coup attempt. Jordan never publicly accused Saudi Arabia of being involved in the alleged plot.
  • There has been growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Jordan in recent years over regional policy and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

MBS also traveled to Ankara for a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In April, Erdogan visited Riyadh for the first time in years.

  • Erdoğan's visit to Saudi Arabia and MBS’ trip to Turkey are part of the normalization process between the countries, which was frozen after the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
  • U.S. intelligence concluded that MBS ordered the murder — a conclusion Saudi officials deny.
  • Erdoğan led the international campaign against Saudi Arabia for the murder, and Turkish intelligence leaked incriminating evidence against the Saudis to the local and international press.
  • But in recent months, Erdoğan started trying to mend ties with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to deal with Turkey's deepening economic crisis.