Sep 22, 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 the latest in Israeli politics. I've got three scoops for you today (1,885 words, 7 minutes).

Subscribe here, and spread the word.

1 big thing: Scoop... Sullivan planning to visit the Saudis next week

Jake Sullivan. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to travel to the Middle East next week, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. He would be the most senior Biden administration official to visit the kingdom.

Why it matters: Sullivan's first trip to the region since taking office is expected to include stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, fours sources briefed on the plans tell Axios. All three countries are longtime U.S. partners who faced some early tensions with Biden.

The big picture: Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are particularly difficult after Biden vowed on the campaign trail to “make them the pariah that they are."

  • After taking office, Biden published a CIA report that held Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and stopped arms deals with the Saudis over human rights violations in Yemen.
  • More recently, the U.S. pulled a Patriot missile defense system out of Saudi Arabia.
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently canceled a trip to Saudi Arabia at the last minute, citing “scheduling issues."

U.S. relations with Egypt are also strained, particularly after the State Department froze $130 million of the annual U.S. military aid to Egypt over President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's human rights record.

  • The U.S. did allow $170 million in military aid to go through, though, and it's been working with Egypt to prevent another flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
  • The Egyptians are also seeking U.S. support in their dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project that Egypt views as an existential threat to its water supply.
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken is expected to meet his Egyptian counterpart on Thursday in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The UAE has managed the transition from Donald Trump to Biden without such a significant strain in the relationship.

  • The Biden administration has supported the UAE's engagement with Israel under the Abraham Accords and allowed a controversial arms deal — signed by the Trump administration in the context of the Israel deal — to go through.
  • Iran will likely be a major focus of Sullivan's visit. The Emiratis want the U.S. to take a stronger position against Iran's regional activities.

Between the lines: Biden is planning to shift resources and attention away from the Middle East and toward China, and leaders in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are concerned about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means for U.S. engagement in the region.

  • Worth noting: The main U.S. partner in the region during the withdrawal was Qatar, which until nine months ago was subject to a boycott from all three countries.

What's next: Sullivan is planning to depart for the region this weekend, though his plans could still change. The White House did not offer a comment.

2. Scoop: U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran "plan B"

Bennett and Biden. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran last week to discuss a possible “plan B” if nuclear talks are not resumed, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time a top-secret U.S.-Israel strategic working group on Iran has convened since the new Israeli government took office in June.

Driving the news: The meeting last week was held via a secure video conference call and led by national security adviser Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata.

  • The Israeli side stressed the need to move ahead with a “plan B” on Iran due to the stalemate in diplomatic talks and Iran's nuclear acceleration.
  • The U.S. side stressed that it was also concerned about the stalemate and said the U.S. would impose additional sanctions on Iran if talks don't resume soon, an Israeli official told me.
  • A White House spokesperson told Axios that the U.S. "remains engaged in ongoing consultations with the Israeli government on a range of issues related to the challenge posed by Iran."

Flashback: The working group, code-named “Opal” (Leshem in Hebrew), was established in the early days of the Obama administration and was headed by the national security advisers on both sides.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure on Iran during Obama’s first term, and it became the primary setting to air disagreements about the nuclear deal during Obama’s second term.
  • During Donald Trump's tenure, the forum convened to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to coordinate the "maximum pressure" campaign.
  • In February, when Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister, the Biden administration proposed that the forum reconvene, and the group met in March and April.
  • When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the White House last month, he and President Biden agreed to resume the working group.

What’s next: A spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Iran would be ready to resume Vienna nuclear talks in a few weeks.

  • They have stalled under Iran's new hardline administration, which says it will scrap the draft agreement reached before the Iranian elections and take a tougher stand.
  • Iranian foreign minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian met on Tuesday in New York with the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and will meet this week with the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the U.K. to discuss a possible resumption of the Vienna talks.
3. View from Sudan: Foiled coup exposes divides in Sudan's government

PM Hamdok (left) and Gen. Burhan (right). Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty

Rather than uniting in the face of a shared threat, a foiled coup attempt in Sudan on Tuesday has further exposed the divisions between the civilian and military elements of the government, Wasil Ali, former deputy editor of the Sudan Tribune, writes for Axios.

Driving the news: On Tuesday morning, Sudanese state media announced that a coup attempt was underway.

  • A civilian member of the Sovereign Council, Mohamed al-Faki Suleiman, took to social media to urge people to "defend the country" and "protect the [democratic] transition."
  • Suleiman later declared that everything was "under control" and the "revolution will prevail."
  • Behind the scenes: At least one civilian member of the Sovereign Council was aware of a coup plot by rogue army officers the day before it transpired, according to sources who received a briefing on the matter.

The big picture: After dictator Omar al-Bashir was toppled in 2019 in a popular uprising, the Sovereign Council took power to manage a three-year transition to democracy, led initially by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

  • A civilian is supposed to take charge in November and would be Sudan's first civilian head of state since 1989. But it remains to be seen whether the military will cede the position.
  • Infighting has already delayed the formation of a legislative assembly, which would provide some civilian oversight of the military and be a major step forward in the democratic transition. The coup attempt could complicate things further.

Addressing an emergency Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok blamed the uprising on elements inside and outside the army with links to the Bashir regime, and he appeared to point the finger at Islamists.

  • He also suggested that there was a connection between the coup attempt and the unrest sweeping the country, including in East Sudan where a tribal leader has blocked vital roads.
  • Khartoum itself has witnessed a rising state of insecurity marked by violent crimes and armed robberies.
  • Yes, but: Burhan contradicted Hamdok by saying there was no evidence that the coup plotters had any political affiliations. Other military officials disputed a government spokesperson's claim that no civilians had been arrested.

Between the lines: The coup attempt goes to the heart of some of the key divisions between the military and civilian factions.

  • Shortly after it was thwarted, Hamdok pressed the need for security sector reform. That's a top priority of the international community, but faces strong resistance from within the military wing of the government, in particular from Deputy Chairman Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who refuses to integrate his Rapid Support Forces into the army.
  • The coup attempt will also amplify claims that the army remains filled with Islamists and Bashir allies who pose a threat to the democratic transition, and that Burhan has ignored that threat.
  • Some also suspect that the military is happy to see the civilian government struggle because that could make a military takeover down the road more palatable.
4. Scoop: Russia wants trilateral talks with U.S. and Israel on Syria

Secretaries Blinken (left) and Lavrov. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry\TASS via Getty

Russia has asked Israel to encourage the U.S. to agree to hold high-level trilateral talks on Syria, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel's main focus in Syria is getting Iran out, and that would likely only be possible through U.S.-Russian cooperation. 

Flashback: The U.S., Russian and Israeli national security advisers last met to discuss Syria in Jerusalem in June 2019, with John Bolton representing the U.S.

  • Bolton was fired two months later, and there was no follow-up meeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov raised the issue with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid when they met in Moscow two weeks ago, and the Russians have also raised it with Bennett's national security adviser, Hulata.

  • Last Thursday, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk met in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and with Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev.
  • The Russians requested the meeting and wanted to discuss steps toward a political solution in Syria and to see if the U.S. was willing to offer sanctions waivers to allow oil and gas to travel through Syria to Lebanon, which is facing dire shortages.
  • According to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, McGurk raised the potential withdrawal of Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias from the areas close to the border with Israel in the Golan Heights.

What’s next: Israeli officials tell me they support a trilateral meeting between the national security advisers. The White House says "there are no trilateral meetings to preview."

  • Bennett is also expected to visit Moscow in the coming weeks for his first meeting with Putin.
5. Bennett's speech: No gimmicks, little fanfare

Bennett. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty

Bennett will address the UN General Assembly for the first time on Monday — an international debut that will nonetheless be geared more toward his domestic audience.

Why it matters: Bennett is attempting to build his gravitas and legitimacy as prime minister. Netanyahu, made the General Assembly an annual showcase to rally his base and build his image as a leading player who could address the world in perfect English.

  • Over 12 years and 10 speeches, Netanyahu's addresses became one of the signature dishes on the General Assembly menu.
  • They often included theatrical flourishes, including a moment of silence (2015), a cartoon of a bomb on which he drew a red line in marker (2012), or the satellite image of what he claimed was a Hezbollah missile depot in Beirut (2020).

Ahead of his trip, officials from the Mossad and military intelligence asked the Prime Minister’s Office if they wanted to use the speech to expose some new intelligence on Iran or Hezbollah, but Bennett’s aides said they didn't want any "Netanyahu-style gimmicks," an Israeli official told me.

  • But as Netanyahu often did, Bennett will focus his speech mainly on Iran. He'll attack President Ebrahim Raisi's human rights record and lay out the Israeli policy toward Tehran.

Bennett won't arrive in New York until Saturday, after most world leaders have already left town, because of the Jewish holidays. He'll speak on the last day during a session in which the other speakers are all foreign ministers.