A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.
Jan 12, 2022

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 the latest in Israeli politics. Subscribe if you haven't yet.
  • This week's edition is 1,899 words (7 minutes).
1 big thing: China hosts string of Gulf officials in sign of growing clout

Wang Yi (right) greets Faisal bin Farhan on Jan. 10. Photo: Ji Chunpeng/Xinhua via Getty

The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council are all visiting China this week for talks on boosting trade and security cooperation.

Why it matters: The flurry of visits by Gulf officials is part of China’s push for deeper involvement in the Middle East. For Beijing, the Gulf in particular is key to its energy supply and increasingly to its geopolitical influence.

With Washington focusing on the Indo-Pacific, and with U.S.-Saudi relations under strain, there is a perception among Gulf leaders that the U.S. is slowly but surely pulling out of the region. Some U.S. officials are concerned about the degree to which China seems to be moving in.

  • A $23 billion deal for the U.S. to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE has stalled in part over U.S. concerns that China could get access to sensitive U.S. military technology.
  • Last December, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Saudi Arabia is actively manufacturing ballistic missiles with the help of China.
  • And last November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration was concerned that China was secretly building a military facility at a port in the UAE.

Driving the news: On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the city of Wuxi in eastern China.

  • They discussed the bilateral relationship and regional issues like Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to the official readouts.
  • Both sides described the relationship as strategic and expressed readiness to boost it. They also announced that a joint high-level committee would convene to enhance cooperation.

What they're saying: Wang said both countries oppose "unilateralism and bullying," while Prince Faisal said his country opposes “interfering in China's domestic affairs” and supports China's position on Taiwan, on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and on human rights, according to the Chinese readout.

The other side: A senior U.S. State Department official tried to downplay the significance of the Gulf officials' visits, stressing that each country has a sovereign right to make decisions based on its own interests and that the U.S. remains committed to its partnerships in the Gulf.

  • "We recognize that our allies and partners in the region have complex relationships with China, which will not always align with our own," the official told Axios.
  • "Our focus has been on closing the gaps in areas like technology and infrastructure, which we have seen China exploit to exert coercive pressure. We will rely on innovation and competition in these areas."

What's next: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is expected to travel to China in the coming days. Iran's Foreign Ministry said the sides would discuss the 25-year cooperation agreement they signed last year.

2. Ahead of Iran deal decision, White House takes aim at Trump

Jen Psaki briefs the press as Jake Sullivan looks on. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

With the Iran nuclear talks reaching a critical moment, the White House plans to focus much of its public messaging in the coming weeks on attacking former President Donald Trump for leaving the 2015 deal, two sources briefed on the White House plans told me.

Why it matters: The Biden administration thinks it's now just a matter of weeks before the critical decision point: Either a deal will be reached and the U.S. will return to the nuclear deal or talks will break down and the administration will move to put more pressure on Iran, the sources said.

  • Both scenarios will generate political backlash, particularly from Republicans, but the White House wants to keep Democrats together in part by emphasizing that it was Trump who triggered this crisis and left them with only bad options.
  • "They are going to focus the fire on Trump," one source said.
  • A senior administration official said the White House would "continue to clearly state the facts and set the record straight at this critical moment for diplomacy and important point in history."

Behind the scenes: According to the two sources, the Biden administration has set the end of January or early February as the deadline to make a decision and intends to ramp up its public messaging on Iran before then.

  • The White House hopes the message will be amplified by current and former officials in the U.S. and in Israel who believe Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal was a mistake.

What they're saying: During Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesperson Ned Price diverted from a question about the Vienna talks into an attack on the Trump administration.

  • “It’s worth spending just a moment on how we got here," Price said. "It is deeply unfortunate that because of an ill-considered or perhaps unconsidered decision by the previous administration that this administration came into office without these stringent verification and monitoring protocols that were in place."
  • Price said the Trump administration promised a better deal “that never came close" and instead "Iran has been able to gallop forward with its nuclear promise."

What’s next: The eighth round of talks in Vienna has continued for almost two weeks now. U.S. and European diplomats briefed on the talks say there has been modest progress but not such that they're optimistic a deal is at hand.

  • European diplomats say most of the talks in recent days focused on Iran’s demand that the U.S. provide guarantees that no future president will pull out of the deal — a promise the Biden administration has said it can't make.
  • Iranian media reports also focused on the guarantee issue and added that another focus of the talks was on Iran’s demand for verification that the sanctions relief in any deal really delivers economic benefits, though it's unclear what that would entail.
  • The Iranians claim that the Obama administration continued to discourage companies from doing business in Iran even after lifting sanctions.
3. Violent arrest in West Bank triggers attack on PA headquarters

Zakaria Zubeidi (right) attends a virtual court hearing. His son was one of the teens arrested. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty

The violent arrest of three Palestinian teenagers by Palestinian police in the city of Jenin in the West Bank led to an unprecedented attack by a local militia against the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the city.

Why it matters: The incident was another signal of the PA's deteriorating control in the occupied West Bank.

Driving the news: Last Friday, Palestinian police arrested the teens, reportedly for an alleged traffic violation.

  • In an incident that was caught on video and went viral on social media, the police beat the teenagers after they appeared to resist arrest.
  • One of the teens was the son of Zakaria Zubeidi, the former local commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party.
  • Zubeidi was arrested in 2019 on terror charges and was one of six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from an Israeli jail last September before being recaptured.

After the teens' arrest, armed members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade attacked Palestinian security forces in Jenin with live fire and explosive devices.

  • At the same time, hundreds of Fatah members, some of them armed, rallied in Jenin's refugee camp calling for the release of the three teenagers.
  • They were released the next day, and the PA announced it would prosecute the policemen who were involved in the arrest.

The big picture: The events in Jenin were the worst in a series of violent incidents in the West Bank over the last several months, and this time the attack came from within Abbas’ own party.

  • In an apparent attempt to regain control, Abbas recently appointed the former head of Palestinian domestic intelligence agency, Ziad Hab al-Reeh, as the interior minister — a post that had been vacant for several years.
  • Fatah officials said publicly in recent days that the events in Jenin show the need to deal with the growing economic problems in the West Bank, in particular the widespread youth unemployment.
4. The view from Amman: Jordan seeks big aid package from Biden

Ayman Safadi. Photo: Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty

With a big aid package granted by the Trump administration about to expire, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has traveled to Washington seeking a better deal, Daoud Kuttab writes from Amman.

Why it matters: Jordan is struggling with an economic crisis and is dependent on U.S. financial assistance, which totaled $1.65 billion in 2021. A five-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) that guarantees at least $1.25 billion in annual U.S. aid expires in September.

Driving the news: Safadi's agenda this week includes a meeting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Thursday and several meetings with officials whose portfolios cover security, foreign aid, energy and refugee issues. He'll also meet with members of Congress, think tank experts and American Jewish leaders.

  • The Jordanian Foreign Ministry said Safadi would discuss the Palestinian issue and efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, while also working toward a new MOU.

What they're saying: Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and former Middle East negotiator in multiple U.S. administrations, said that in a volatile region where at least four Arab states are in varying states of dysfunction, Jordan — despite its economic and political problems — represents a stable and important partner for the United States.

  • “Increasing bilateral assistance in the context of the 2018 MOU would be a small investment, and as the U.S. shifts its priorities to Asia, conveys at least a small signal that it values its regional partners," Miller said.
  • Mofid Deek, a retired U.S. diplomat now living in Jordan, said that he expects the total amount of U.S. government aid to Jordan to increase and that Biden has a keen interest in Jordan's stability. "There is also strong U.S.-Jordan coordination on the strategic level especially on the cause of peace in Palestine," he said.
  • Aaron Magid, a U.S. expert on Jordanian affairs, said that with the Hashemite kingdom's national debt climbing to around $45 billion and unemployment at 23%, securing over $1 billion in annual U.S. aid is a key priority for Jordan's foreign policy.
5. Bennett gambles on no lockdown strategy as cases climb

Naftali Bennett. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is facing growing criticism as Israel continues to set new records for daily COVID cases, but he's decided to try to ride out the fifth wave without new lockdowns.

Why it matters: Bennett has taken a big bet that the Israeli health system will be able to withstand the Omicron wave.

  • As cases began to rise, Bennett quickly imposed new border restrictions to buy time for the health system to prepare. He has also made a second booster dose available to health workers and people over 60.
  • But Bennett has avoided new restrictions and argued that a lockdown would not be effective against Omicron.

Between the lines: Bennett's political calling card during previous waves was to argue that then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be keeping the country open, so he doesn't have much room to maneuver on this issue politically.

State of play: 65% of Israelis would support limitations on public gatherings, in contrast with Bennett's policy, according to a Channel 12 poll published earlier this week.

  • Majorities disapprove of how the government (63%), Bennett (62%) and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman (66%) — who has opposed compensation for businesses affected by the new wave — are handling the pandemic.

What he's saying: At a press conference on Tuesday, Bennett blamed the media for generating “hysteria” about the Omicron wave.

  • He stressed that it was not possible to defeat Omicron and that, therefore, the correct strategy was to protect vulnerable people while keeping the economy open.
  • Bennett did change course on one issue by pledging compensation for some businesses.
  • He said the next few weeks will be hard but the Omicron wave will pass.

What’s next: Bennett and his advisers are anxiously waiting to see a change in the number of new infections, which they expect to start to fall in 10–14 days.

  • If this happens, they think they'll get a lot of credit from the public, Bennett's aides say.