Jun 16, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, reporting from a contributor in the region and our Bibi Barometer on the latest in Israeli politics — though we may have to make it a Bennett Barometer going forward.
  • Tonight's edition is 2,002 words (7 minutes).

Situational awareness: The Israeli military conducted its first airstrikes in Gaza overnight since the ceasefire, in response to incendiary balloons launched earlier in the day from Gaza. There were no reports of casualties on either side.

1 big thing: Bennett's plan for good relations with Biden

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Stephanie Lecoq/Pool/AFP, Amir Levy/Getty Images

New Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is signaling he intends to move cautiously at first on issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an approach that will suit the Biden administration just fine.

Why it matters: Bennett is aiming to avoid an early confrontation with the U.S., and his fragile and ideologically diverse government will have a hard time taking any groundbreaking steps on foreign policy in the first place.

  • The Biden administration is also planning to take it slow, avoiding any big initiatives that could destabilize the new government, a U.S. official tells me.

The backstory: Bennett has presented hawkish views on Iran and the Palestinian issue throughout his political career, supporting an increase in Israeli military strikes against Iranian forces and proxies, backing settlement expansions, and even calling for the annexation of most of the West Bank.

  • But he will have a hard time implementing those policies as the leader of a broad power-sharing government.

Bennett presented an Iran policy similar to Benjamin Netanyahu's in his swearing-in speech, but he said he'd pursue it in a less confrontational style than his predecessor.

  • He stressed the need to deepen relations with both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. and to manage the differences on issues like Iran “out of basic trust and mutual respect."

Driving the news: President Biden spoke to Bennett two hours after he was sworn in on Sunday.

  • Bennett felt good about the call, his aides said. Biden's team also feels confident that it will be able to work cooperatively with the new Israeli government, a person familiar with the White House thinking told me.
  • "The White House wants to have close and regular consultation and engagement with Bennett and his team based on candid exchange of views, respect for differences, a desire to work toward stability and security," the source said.
  • Biden has not yet invited Bennett to the White House, but Israeli officials think that could happen sometime in July.

Behind the scenes: Bennett has met multiple times over the last several months, and once in recent weeks, with Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman, author of the book "Catch-67."

  • In his book, Goodman calls for an incremental approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing on “decreasing the conflict” until a final deal might be possible in the future.
  • Bennett read Goodman’s book and became interested in some of his ideas, a source familiar with his thinking tells me. In his speech on Sunday, Bennett echoed the book's main message.
  • "A stable security situation [in the West Bank and Gaza] and a focus on civilian matters could lead to economic measures, lowering of friction and decreasing of the conflict," Bennett said.

The big picture: The Biden administration sees the situation similarly, contending that conditions aren't right for a peace deal and that the focus should thus be on practical steps to improve the situation on the ground.

2. The view from Ramallah: Wary of Bennett but happy to see Bibi go

Bennett (Right center) and Netanyahu (front left) minutes before power changed hands. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

Palestinian leaders had hoped for a long time to get rid of Netanyahu, but they didn’t want to end up with Naftali Bennett, writes Abdel Raouf Arnaout, political correspondent for Al-Ayyam newspaper.

The big picture: The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah considers Bennett a hardliner because he has opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state and previously called for Israel to annex Area C, which constitutes 60% of the West Bank.

  • One Palestinian official who asked to remain anonymous told me that Bennett is an "extremist," but he's also inexperienced and surrounded by centrist and left-wing ministers. That could make it difficult for him to make decisions that were easy for Netanyahu to make, the official said.

What they're saying: The Palestinian official told me "the end of the Netanyahu era is good news."

  • "His only desire was to stay in power, and thus his 12-year term was a political stalemate, field escalation and settlement expansion in an attempt to maintain the right-wing support for him," the official added.

Driving the news: Contrary to the norm in such cases, no official statement on the swearing-in of the new government was issued by the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though Abbas' aides were watching the process closely.

  • One of the only Palestinian officials who went on the record regarding the new Israeli government was Hussein Al-Sheikh, chair of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Commission. He criticized Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's remark that the new government would "improve the lives of the Palestinians and the dialogue with them on civil issues."
  • “Palestinians are not looking for better living conditions nor for civil dialogues!! Our people are seeking their salvation from occupation, freedom and independence in their state, with East Jerusalem as its capital," Al-Sheikh tweeted.

What to watch: The Palestinians are currently watching how Bennett will deal with a number of burning issues, including the potential expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in East Jerusalem.

  • "The U.S. is speaking against the eviction ... and Meretz party, which has ministers in the government, had been calling to stop the eviction. Will this stop the eviction? This is a big question mark for us," one Palestinian official told me.

What’s next: Palestinian officials say they don't know whether progress on a political solution will be possible with Bennett at the helm, but that their attitude toward Bennett will be decided by his actions, not his words.

  • The Palestinian leadership isn't ruling out working with the new Israeli government on confidence-building measures to improve the lives of the population, but not as a substitute for working toward establishing a Palestinian state.
3. Bibi Barometer: The plan of attack against Bennett

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Pool, Gali Tibbon/Getty Images

Opposition leader Netanyahu is preparing for a months-long campaign against the Biden administration and the Bennett government over the Iran nuclear deal.

Why it matters: This will be one of the most delicate issues for the new government to handle as Biden negotiates a return to the deal. Netanyahu is the face of Israel's opposition to the deal at home and in Washington — and he plans to force the issue.

What he's saying: “From the moment the Biden administration returns to the Iran deal, the incoming government won’t approve actions in Iran to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. All they are going to do is to say something for the protocol," Netanyahu claimed in his speech on Sunday before Bennett was sworn in.

Behind the scenes: Several days earlier, during a meeting with the leaders of Jewish organizations in the U.S., Netanyahu said Iran would be a main issue for him as head of the opposition, an Israeli official familiar with the meeting told me.

  • Netanyahu told the group he'd be warning against the "appeasement" of Iran from both the Biden administration and the new Israeli government.
  • Netanyahu expressed similar sentiments in a meeting that same day with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Bill Hagerty.
  • After the meeting, Hagerty told me the Biden administration must reconsider its approach toward the Iran deal and "stay on the course of prevention and not of containment."

This week, Netanyahu met in Jerusalem with former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

  • After the meeting, Haley told Fox News that Netanyahu told her, “It’s a death wish for Israel if Biden goes back to the Iran deal" — though she did say she'd heard similar things from Lapid.

What to watch: Expect Netanyahu to rally Republicans against the Biden administration’s return to the Iran deal while attacking the Israeli government for not pushing back harder on Biden.

  • That could put Bennett in a very awkward position.
Bonus: Most diverse government in Israel's history

The new government with outgoing President Rivlin at center. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

The new Israeli government is the most diverse since the country was founded 73 years ago, representing almost all of the different groups in Israeli society.

The numbers: The government consists of three right-wing parties, three centrist parties, two left-wing parties and, for the first time, an Arab party.

  • Nine women will serve in the 27-member Cabinet, and three will serve in the Security Cabinet — both records.
  • Six ministers are immigrants, six are observant Jews, two are Arab (one Muslim and the other Druze), one is a person with disabilities, and another is gay.
  • The oldest member of the government is 74 while the youngest is 37.

Between the lines: Israeli Foreign Ministry officials tell me the diverse composition of the government is the biggest asset they could have in trying to improve Israel’s image in the U.S. and in Europe.

4. The American strategists behind Bennett and Lapid

Two American political strategists have worked closely with the leaders of Israel's new power-sharing government.

Behind the scenes: Democratic strategist and pollster Mark Mellman has worked with Lapid since he entered politics almost a decade ago, and he was with Lapid all day on Sunday as his client reached his most senior position yet.

What he's saying: "I knew he would be a political superstar. I thought it would take a decade to get him to the top and it did," Mellman told me.

  • Mellman, who is also CEO of advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel, told me he doesn’t represent Lapid's interests in America, but acknowledged that many people in Washington know he is close to him.
  • Mellman has advised Lapid in every election campaign since 2013, and his research and polling have informed many of Lapid's major decisions this election cycle. Lapid traveled to the U.S. to meet Mellman before and immediately after the last elections.

The other side: Bennett consulted during the last campaign and coalition negations with Republican strategist George Birnbaum, who once served as Netanyahu's campaign manager.

  • Birnbaum has given interviews recently stressing that Bennett might moderate some of his hardline positions as prime minister. “The prime minister of Israel has to make decisions of life and death on a daily basis. That’s a lot of responsibility, and that changes a person," he told the Forward.
  • Birnbaum has also advised Bennett on what he should look for in an ambassador to Washington, sources familiar with the matter tell me.
5. What to expect from Iran's presidential election

Supporters of Raisi gather in Tehran. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Iranian Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is the favorite to win Friday's presidential election, a result that would reassert conservative control over all levers of power in Tehran.

Driving the news: The latest polls in Iran project a very low turnout of around 42% — a testament to the disillusionment of supporters of the reformist camp who find themselves with no candidate to vote for.

The backstory: Iran's Guardian Council disqualified all of the reformist candidates, including former parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, a supporter of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani and his policies. Larijani was seen as a potential front-runner.

  • Raisi is a close confidant of and potential successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He has the support of most of the conservative camp, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
  • The least hardline candidate is former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has courted reformist voters with little success. Recent polls show Hemmati with less than 10% of the vote compared to around 50% for Raisi. 
  • On Wednesday, in a last-ditch effort to win the support of reformists, Hemmati announced that he would appoint outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to a top position if elected.

Between the lines: Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told me that Iranian voters aren't just disillusioned with the approved list of candidates but also with Rouhani's tenure as president.

  • “Rouhani had many ideas for domestic reforms, more liberties and less involvement of the IRGC in the country’s economy, but most were never implemented and this created great disappointment among reformists," he said.

What to watch: The elections are taking place while Iran holds indirect talks with the U.S. on a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • Western diplomats involved in the talks think Khamenei wants a deal in place before Raisi assumes office at the beginning of August.
  • Yes, but: Rafael Grossi, who leads the UN's nuclear watchdog, told Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday that it won't be possible to get a deal until a new Iranian government is formed.

What’s next: The results of the elections are expected on Friday night Iran time.