Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.

November 23, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,918 words, 7 minutes) starts with today's breaking news out of Jerusalem, where two bomb blasts killed at least one person.
  • It also brings you scoops on how Israel is monitoring Chinese investments and a secret dossier with intelligence on Iranian arms transfers to Russia.

đź—“ Situational awareness: I'm off next week. We'll be back in your inbox on Dec. 7.

1 big thing: Explosions rock Jerusalem

v

Israeli security forces gather at the scene of an explosion at a bus stop in Jerusalem today. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli teen was killed and at least 15 others, including two U.S. citizens, were wounded in two explosions in Jerusalem this morning in what Israeli officials are calling a terrorist attack.

The big picture: These are the first bomb attacks against Israeli citizens in years.

  • The explosions in Jerusalem come as the security situation in the occupied West Bank continues to deteriorate.
  • The escalation in violence has also taken place against the backdrop of the political crisis in Israel (see item 4), increased Israeli raids in the West Bank and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority.
  • A 16-year-old Palestinian was killed overnight in Nablus amid a firefight between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers who were escorting Orthodox Jewish worshippers to a shrine in the Palestinian city.

Driving the news: Israeli police officials said in a briefing with reporters that the two explosive devices were similar. Both were built in a professional way and were detonated remotely using a mobile phone, the officials added.

  • Israeli police and the Shin Bet intelligence agencies believe the two explosions were part of the same terror plot and were orchestrated by an organized group that prepared for a long time, Israeli officials said. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • The Israeli police had information about threats of bombing attacks in Jerusalem in recent weeks but the threats weren't specific, the officials said.

State of play: There has been a significant increase in the number of Palestinians killed in Israeli military raids into West Bank cities and a growing number of stabbing and shooting attacks by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers and civilians.

  • The Biden administration has expressed concerns that the Palestinian Authority could collapse and that the situation in the West Bank could turn into a third intifada.

In the West Bank city of Jenin, the body of an Israeli Druze man was kidnapped from the hospital by a group of gunmen affiliated with the Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials say. A family member of an Israeli who was at the hospital when the kidnapping took place claimed the gunman took the body while the man was still connected to life support.

  • The Palestinian gunmen demanded that Israel return the bodies of Palestinians who were killed during attacks and those Israel is holding.
  • UN officials said they are still negotiating with the Palestinian Authority to retrieve the body.

Go deeper

2. Israel to increase reviews of foreign investments after U.S. pressure

Illustration of a magnifying glass inspecting a briefcase that looks like the Chinese flag.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Israel's Security Cabinet reached a decision earlier this month that significantly tightens government oversight on foreign investments, two senior Israeli officials say.

Why it matters: While the decision doesn't explicitly mention China, Israeli officials say the new policy is a response to two years of pressure by the Biden administration to limit China's role in sectors like energy, infrastructure, telecommunications and transportation. 

  • The Foreign Investment Review Committee will review all investments that amount to more than 20% of the value of companies in a broad range of sectors and more than 5% in cases of particular relevance to national security. All foreign investments in government tenders will also be reviewed.
  • The Cabinet left it up to government regulators to determine which companies fall into each category, in consultation with the committee.
  • According to the decision, the status of the Foreign Ministry on the committee will be upgraded from observer to a full member, giving greater importance to foreign policy considerations.
  • This is a significant change of policy for the review committee, which was formed three years ago after pressure from the Trump administration. Until now, the review process was mostly voluntary and it intervened only in rare cases.

Yes, but: The rule won't apply to foreign investments in private Israeli tech companies, the two Israeli officials say.

  • The Israeli government has expressed concerns that such reviews could harm the Israeli tech sector, which is the main engine of the Israeli economy.

Flashback: The Biden administration has put a lot of pressure on the Israeli government to limit Chinese involvement in the Israeli economy.

  • U.S. officials have expressed security and economic concerns about Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure but also in its tech sector and involvement in research at Israeli universities.

The other side: Two weeks ago, Chinese special envoy for the Middle East Zhai Jun visited Jerusalem and told Israeli Foreign Ministry officials that China hopes "external elements" won't interfere with the relations between the countries, Israeli officials said.

  • According to a summary of the meeting, the Chinese envoy stressed that China hopes it can enjoy "open, equal and non-discriminatory" treatment in Israel. 

3. Israel lobbies allies with intel on Iranian arms transfers

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R) in Tehran ahead of on July 19, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on July 19. Photo: Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israel in recent weeks has provided a dossier with intelligence about Iranian arms transfers to Russia to its embassies in dozens of Western countries and senior NATO officials, according to Israeli officials and Israeli Foreign Ministry cables.

Why it matters: The new diplomatic and intelligence effort, which started at the end of October, represents a change in Israeli behavior around Iran's role in the war in Ukraine, which until last month didn’t include active lobbying on the issue to avoid tensions with Russia.

  • Israeli officials said they hope to use the current focus on Iranian assistance to the Russian war effort as a means for increasing international pressure on Tehran.
  • Iran has repeatedly denied supplying Russia with weapons since the war began, despite growing Western intelligence and evidence to the contrary.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said that on Oct. 20, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a secret cable to a few dozen Israeli embassies in key countries asking them to start raising the issue of Iranian drone transfers to Russia and the possible transfer of ballistic missiles.

  • Shortly after, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a dossier to the same embassies that included intelligence on Iran’s arms transfers to Russia, Israeli Foreign Ministry cables show.
  • Israeli diplomats delivered dĂ©marches on the issue in numerous countries and passed on the dossier, the officials and cables said.
  • The Israeli ambassador to NATO gave the dossier to NATO's deputy secretary-general, and a senior Israeli diplomat traveled to Brussels for a series of briefings on the issue in the EU headquarters and in the European Parliament, according to the cables and Israeli officials.
  • Last week, the Israeli ambassador to Moscow raised the issue with the Russian deputy foreign minister and presented Israel’s concerns, the Israeli officials say.

What they're saying: Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Sunday said that in recent weeks Iranian-made drone attacks killed civilians in Ukraine.

What to watch: Israeli officials say they want to organize an international conference in Israel about the proliferation of Iranian-made drones. They've started raising the idea with allies.

4. Bibi's efforts to form government moving slowly

Benjamin Netanyahu.

Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

After today's attacks in Jerusalem, the parties of incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition issued statements calling for the government to be formed and sworn in as soon as possible.

Why it matters: Coalition talks on the new government are moving slower than Netanyahu had hoped 10 days after he received the mandate to form a government as different parties in the coalition vie to secure a list of demands.

  • "In this sensitive security situation, it is time to put personal ambitions aside and form a government that will restore security," Netanyahu's Likud party said in a statement today.

Driving the news: While Netanyahu wanted to sign a coalition agreement in very broad strokes and focus on the allocation of the different portfolios, the other parties came to the negotiation table with a long list of demands they wanted to be part of the deal.

  • One of the main obstacles is radical right-wing religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich's demand that he be appointed either as minister of defense or minister of finance.
  • Netanyahu refused to appoint Smotrich as defense minister partly because of U.S. pressure, and he couldn’t appoint him as minister of finance because he promised it to the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri, according to sources within the Likud and Religious Zionism parties.
  • Deri has said he will let go of that promise in return for getting more government ministries under his control, but he demanded that after two years, he would rotate with Smotrich in the Finance Ministry.
  • Meanwhile, more Likud members have started to voice frustration over the fact that Netanyahu is giving away important ministries to the coalition partners although they are the biggest party in the coalition.

Between the lines: During the negotiations, the different parties presented demands that show how conservative and hardline the government policy could be.

  • The ultra-Orthodox parties want to change the law so that the segregation of men and women in cultural events and in public services won’t be banned as discriminatory.

Meanwhile, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a Jewish supremacist party who wants to be the minister for internal security, is demanding that he get direct authority over police policy. He also wants to change the law so that the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency will start countering non-terrorism-related crime.

  • Smotrich, a settler who supports the annexation of the occupied West Bank, wants to appoint a member of his party as the minister in the Ministry of Defense who would be in charge of building in the West Bank settlements.
  • He also demanded that the authorities of the Ministry of Defense regarding the settlements be moved under his authority in the Finance Ministry — a shift that could dramatically change the legal status of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
  • Netanyahu’s Likud party wants to change the law so that all the legal advisers of government ministries will be political appointees and won’t have to adhere to the attorney general.

5. U.S. creates post focused solely on Palestinian affairs

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets Hady Amr (L) in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on May 17, 2021. Photo: Handout/Palestinian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Hady Amr in Ramallah on May 17, 2021. Photo: Handout/Palestinian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Biden administration notified Congress yesterday that it has appointed Hady Amr as a new special representative for Palestinian affairs, a senior State Department official said.

Why it matters: The move is an upgrade in U.S.-Palestinian relations. It is the first time the U.S. has created a Washington-based position at the State Department that is solely responsible for Palestinian Affairs.

Behind the scenes: Two U.S. and Palestinian officials said this move was several months in the making.

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had reservations about it at first, but in recent weeks made it clear that the Palestinian Authority agreed with the decision and will work with Amr, according to the Palestinian source.
  • The State Department notified the outgoing Israeli government about the move and also updated Netanyahu and his advisers in advance, the U.S. official said.

Between the lines: The creation of the new post is also meant to upgrade the U.S.-Palestinian relationship and diplomatic representation as much as possible given the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, has yet to reopen, according to a U.S. official.

  • “As the President reiterated in Israel and the West Bank, we remain committed to reopening our consulate general in Jerusalem and to the vision of a two-state solution," the State Department official said.

Former U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace Martin Indyk told Axios the move sends a signal to the Palestinians of their importance at a time when the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem remains closed and there's no Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington. The Trump administration closed the Washington PLO office in 2018.

  • He added that Amr's challenge will be bolstering the Palestinian Authority and encouraging it to undertake serious reforms “without which the West Bank will become increasingly unmanageable."

Read more

⚽️ Bonus pic of the week: World Cup stunner

Saudi Arabia celebrate after beating Argentina.

Players on Saudi Arabia's national team celebrate after beating Argentina on Tuesday. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia pulled off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history yesterday with a shocking 2-1 victory over Argentina.