Axios from Tel Aviv
June 28, 2023
Welcome to my last edition of Axios from Tel Aviv.
- I want to thank you, my readers, for spending Wednesdays with me every week. It's been a fun and rewarding 2½ years.
What's next: I'll still be writing and reporting for Axios, but from Washington, D.C., where I'll cover the 2024 elections, foreign policy and national security.
- You can continue to follow my scoops, other reporting and analysis on axios.com and in Axios Sneak Peek — an insider's guide to the most powerful people shaping Washington. Sign up here.
Before we say goodbye, today's edition (1,871 words, 7 minutes) starts with a scoop that highlights the tensions between the U.S. and Israel on Iran.
1 big scoop: Sullivan's tough call with his Israeli counterpart
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan in a tough call with his Israeli counterpart last week expressed concern that Israel is leaking information to the press about indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran, three U.S. and Israeli officials told me.
Why it matters: Recent press reports by Axios and other media outlets about the indirect talks, which have been confirmed by Iran but not officially by the Biden administration, generated criticism among congressional Republicans, who are demanding the Biden administration seek congressional review for any agreement with Iran.
- The talks are aimed at reaching understandings on Iran's nuclear program and regional de-escalation.
Catch up quick: Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, met Sullivan at the White House in early June and were briefed in detail about the indirect talks, two Israeli officials said.
- "We are trying to do what we can to get on the same page with the U.S. and we will continue to try and do that," Dermer said at an American Jewish Committee conference in Tel Aviv shortly after the meeting, adding the discussions at the White House were "open, frank and candid."
Behind the scenes: Most press reports about the talks began to surface in June, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers in a classified Knesset hearing that the U.S. was working on a “mini-agreement” with Iran.
- In his call with Hanegbi last week, Sullivan mentioned frustrations around Netanyahu's remarks, according to a senior Israeli official.
- Hanegbi told Sullivan that Netanyahu must speak about the talks with Israeli lawmakers because he is being criticized by the opposition, according to an Israeli official. Henegbi stressed, however, that the prime minister is limiting his public remarks about the issue as much as possible, the Israeli official said.
- Hanegbi also stressed to Sullivan that under guidance from Netanyahu, he gave several interviews in recent weeks in which he emphasized coordination with the Biden administration on Iran is better than ever.
- A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
- Israel officially objects to any new deal with Iran, but Netanyahu has not campaigned against any possible understandings between Tehran and Washington as he did during the negotiations of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Sullivan claimed during the call that a lot of the information in the press was inaccurate and didn’t reflect what was being discussed in the indirect talks with Iran, the U.S. official said. It's unclear what exactly in the reports the Biden administration sees as inaccurate.
- The White House National Security Council declined to comment.
- One U.S. official said the feeling at the White House was that Israel was behind the leaks and was also feeding Iran hawks in Congress with the same information directly and indirectly.
The big picture: The complaint about the alleged Israeli leaks was only one of the grievances Sullivan raised, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.
- A senior Israeli official told me the call was friendly but said Sullivan also expressed deep concern about the Israeli government's decisions regarding the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and violent attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians.
- Sullivan’s concerns about the situation in the West Bank were included in the White House readout of the call, but his complaint about the alleged leaks on Iran was not mentioned in the statement.
2. Scoop: Netanyahu sees upside to China's involvement in region
Netanyahu recently said in a classified briefing to Israeli lawmakers that China’s growing involvement in the Middle East "could be useful" because it "will compel" the U.S. to increase its engagement in the region, two Israeli officials who attended the meeting told me.
Driving the news: China has sought greater influence in the Middle East — a region long dominated by the U.S. Earlier this year, Beijing brokered a major agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on resuming diplomatic relations.
What they're saying: According to the officials, Netanyahu was asked during a classified briefing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the Chinese government's involvement in the Saudi-Iranian agreement and whether it was good for Israel that China appears to be trying to take a more active role in the region.
- “The Chinese involvement in the Middle East isn’t necessarily bad. It could be useful because it will compel the U.S. to stay here," Netanyahu said, according to the sources.
- The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.
- The Biden administration has consistently pushed back against the perception that it is disengaging from the Middle East and stressed it still has a massive military and diplomatic presence in the region.
- At the same time, Biden administration officials have warned U.S. partners in the region both in private and in public that cooperating too closely with Beijing on security and technology issues could damage their cooperation with Washington.
The big picture: Under U.S. pressure, Israel has in the last two years limited China's involvement in its economy, infrastructure and tech sectors.
- Still, the two countries continue to cooperate on trade, health and innovation.
The Chinese government last month officially invited Netanyahu to Beijing as part of an annual meeting of the China-Israel Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation that has met every year since 2014, two Netanyahu aides said.
- No detailed discussions about the date for the trip have taken place, but it will likely not happen before October, the aides said.
- “This will be a normal visit and not a political signal to anybody," one Netanyahu aide told me.
3. Scoop: Saudi Arabia not committing to Israeli reps for UNESCO meeting
Saudi Arabia has so far not signed a document committing to free access to all UNESCO members for the World Heritage Committee's annual meeting in September, with the issue of allowing Israeli officials to enter the country as the main sticking point, Israeli officials and Western diplomats with direct knowledge of the issue told Axios.
The big picture: Saudi Arabia appears to be taking a cautious approach to any public steps that could be seen as normalization with Israel. The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, though the U.S. is pushing to get an agreement between the countries by early next year, U.S. officials have previously told Axios.
- U.S. officials have previously said they believe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ready to normalize relations with Israel but wants to do it as part of one big package deal with the U.S., and therefore, he doesn’t want to take any more incremental normalization steps.
- If the kingdom agrees to allow the Israeli representatives to visit the kingdom to participate in the meeting, it would be the first time officials from Israel are allowed to officially and publicly enter the country.
- If the Saudis refuse, the event could be moved to a different country.
Driving the news: UNESCO's World Heritage Committee designates world heritage sites around the world.
- The committee's last session was initially scheduled to take place in 2022 in Kazan, Russia, but was postponed after several member states said they would boycott the gathering due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
- Russia’s ambassador to UNESCO resigned last November, and the Russian mandate for hosting the heritage committee expired. The mandate was then given to Saudi Arabia.
- While Saudi Arabia has not specifically mentioned Israel in its objections, the Israeli and UNESCO sources said that it is clear Israel is the primary sticking point.
- The Saudi delegation to UNESCO and the Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.
What to watch: The negotiations on the "host country agreement" are still ongoing, and UNESCO officials are in contact on a high level with both the Saudi and the Israeli governments, Western diplomats and Israeli officials said.
- A decision must be made within a few weeks in order for there to be enough time to prepare for the meeting, the sources noted.
- A Western diplomat with direct knowledge of the issue told me the negotiations on the issue are moving in a positive way in recent days.
4. Scoop: Somalia and Comoros agree to attend Negev Forum meeting
Somalia and Comoros agreed to send senior officials as observers to the ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum, a group that includes the U.S., Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, two Israeli officials told me.
Why it matters: The two Muslim-majority countries, which are also members of the Arab League, don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
- Officials from both countries have been conducting quiet talks with Israel for years and have recently visited Israel secretly, the Israeli officials said.
- Attending the meeting could be a modest — yet significant — step forward in giving momentum to the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.
Catch up quick: The Negev Forum was established in March 2022 in an unprecedented meeting in Israel attended by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
- The idea was that the forum would be a platform for multilateral cooperation in the region in the fields of health, economy, climate change, water and security.
State of play: A second ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum was originally scheduled for March, but it's been postponed several times, with Arab members expressing concerns about publicly engaging with the right-wing Israeli government and the "negative conditions" around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- It's now expected to take place after the summer.
Behind the scenes: Before the most recent postponement, Israel proposed that Somalia and Comoros attend the meeting as observers and both of the countries accepted, the Israeli officials said.
- Briefing reporters on Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that "two or three countries that Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with were supposed to attend the meeting."
- He added that Israel still believes "they will attend the meeting in the future and it will be a step toward normalization with them."
- The Somali Embassy in Washington and the Comoros mission to the UN did not respond to requests for comment.
5. 🙏 1 big moment of gratitude
The end of this newsletter is a very moving moment for me.
Why it matters: Axios from Tel Aviv was a major part of my life for the last few years. I tried my best to bring you every week the most interesting scoops and analysis in the most accurate, fair and balanced way. I hope you feel I succeeded.
The big picture: Axios from Tel Aviv has become a community of engaged people who are interested in the Middle East. I want to again thank you — my readers — who followed this newsletter for more than 2½ years. Thank you for your interest, trust and loyalty. Thank you for your positive reactions — and your criticism. I learned a lot from our dialogue.
- I also wanted to thank the many people — Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, other Arabs and Europeans — who shared tips, answered my phone calls and provided comments for the stories that were published in this newsletter each week.
- And last but not least, I want to send a big thanks to the editors who worked with me on this newsletter: David Lawler, Alison Snyder, Sheryl Miller and Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath. I couldn't have asked for better editors. You amazed me time and time again with your knowledge and expertise, and you made this newsletter so much better.
Don't forget to subscribe to Sneak Peek.