May 26, 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. Today’s edition is 1,863 words (6½ minutes).
  • For your radar: I took a behind-the-scenes look at Biden's handling of the Gaza crisis over the weekend, and our contributor in Ramallah, Abd Elraouf Arnaout, sat down yesterday with Tony Blinken (Arabic).

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1 big thing: Biden's Gaza reconstruction plan faces major roadblocks

Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty

The Biden administration wants to push ahead with humanitarian aid and rebuilding in Gaza. That's easier said than done.

Why it matters: President Biden says he wants to coordinate those efforts with the Palestinian Authority, which has no influence in Gaza, and exclude Hamas, which controls the territory.

  • Israel's strict controls on the entry of goods and building materials into Gaza are a major barrier, as is the reluctance of the international community to invest in the reconstruction of an area that has been repeatedly bombed.

What they're saying: In his meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the relief and reconstruction process would be led by the UN with the participation of the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel.

  • The U.S. wants the Palestinian Authority to have a role in the channeling of aid into Gaza so that it gains influence and goodwill in Gaza, U.S. officials say.
  • The U.S. also wants to establish a strong international monitoring mechanism, led by the UN, to ensure that the aid benefits the people of Gaza and not Hamas.

Yes, but: Israeli officials told Blinken that while they are ready to help in getting immediate humanitarian assistance into Gaza — water, food, medical supplies — several conditions will have to be met before they'll allow the reconstruction effort to begin.

  • One is a monitoring system that's much stronger than previous ones that allowed Hamas to repurpose building materials for its own purposes, Israeli officials tell me.
  • They also want the Biden administration to press Egypt to monitor its border crossing with Gaza and prevent the entry of dual-use items that could bolster Hamas' military industry.
  • Lastly, Israeli officials told Blinken that any meaningful reconstruction of Gaza is conditioned on progress toward the recovery of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the release of Israeli citizens held by Hamas in Gaza.

The other side: Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, claimed in a statement today that Hamas would not interfere with international reconstruction efforts.

  • "We will make the task easier for everyone, and we will make sure that the process is transparent and fair, and let everyone be sure that no penny [of the money for reconstruction] will go to Hamas."

The state of play: 86 education or health facilities were damaged during the fighting in Gaza, urgent repairs are required to restore water and sanitation infrastructure, and food and fuel are also needed, per the UN.

What’s next: During his visit, Blinken announced more than $100 million in additional U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

  • It won't go directly to the Palestinian Authority but through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and various humanitarian and development projects in Gaza.
  • Sources familiar with the issue said this was done to deal with “donor fatigue” and set an example to other donor countries that raised reservations about giving more money to Gaza.
  • Blinken also announced the U.S. would reopen its consulate in Jerusalem as soon as possible to engage with Palestinian officials and civil society and support the humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Gaza.
Bonus: Rivlin to Washington before Bibi

Blinken on Wednesday invited Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to visit the White House before he finishes his term in July.

  • Rivlin accepted the invitation and his aides said the visit would take place in June.
  • They said talks are underway with Speaker Nancy Pelosi about a possible speech by Rivlin at a joint session of Congress during his farewell visit.

Why it matters: Rivlin will be the first Israeli leader to visit Biden’s White House. Netanyahu has yet to secure an invitation.

2. The view from Ramallah: Gaza and Biden give Abbas a lifeline

Blinken (L) visits Abbas. Photo: Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty

Ramallah — The crises in Jerusalem and Gaza have made Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas relevant again, with foreign ministers stopping by his headquarters and the phones ringing with calls from world leaders, Al-Ayyam chief political reporter Abd Elraouf Arnaout writes for Axios.

Why it matters: In the early days of the crisis, Abbas appeared isolated internationally and powerless domestically. The Palestinian Authority feared the tensions in Jerusalem and fighting in Gaza could morph into a new intifada in the West Bank that they would be unable to control.

  • The chants of protesters in East Jerusalem and the West Bank underscored their anger with the Palestinian Authority, which was struggling to justify another postponement of elections that have now been delayed by 16 years.
  • A prominent leader of Abbas' Fatah movement, Jibril Rajoub, had complained on official Palestinian TV that no Arab leader had contacted Abbas as the crisis broke out.
  • "For a long period of time, the Arab interest in the Palestinian issue has significantly decreased, there was a kind of coldness," another senior Palestinian official told me.

But fairly suddenly, the crisis turned into a lifeline for Abbas.

Driving the news: In just two days, the Palestinian president has received Blinken — the first secretary of state to visit Al-Muqata'a (the presidential compound) in more than four years — along with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan.

  • Last week, the German foreign minister visited Ramallah, and the British foreign secretary did so today. The list will grow in the coming days and weeks.
  • Since the crisis began, Abbas has received calls from Biden, Saudi Arabia's King Salman, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and many others.
  • One Palestinian official told me Biden’s call was particularly important as it gave leaders around the world a green light to reengage with the Palestinian Authority.

The state of play: The Gaza conflict also generated renewed American interest in the Palestinian-Israeli file.

  • For months, Palestinian officials have been urging the Biden administration to restart the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that have been stalled since 2014.
  • Israel’s recent elections and the delayed Palestinian vote both made it more difficult for the U.S. to launch any such effort, a Palestinian official told me.
  • It was clear that Israel-Palestine was not even in Biden's top 10 priorities, the official told me. Times have changed.

What’s next: The Palestinian Authority still hopes the Biden administration will push for the resumption of peace talks.

  • "They told us that we have not reached that point yet, maybe later," a Palestinian official said.
3. Gaza conflict brings Sisi in from the cold

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty

The conflict in Gaza gave Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a leading regional role and made him a key partner for the Biden administration in the region.

Why it matters: While Sisi was Donald Trump's "favorite dictator," Biden signaled during the campaign that he would push strongmen like Sisi on human rights, and the new administration hardly engaged with Egypt after taking office.

Behind the scenes: The first call between Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was tough, and the State Department's terse readout focused on human rights.

  • So cold were the initial interactions that Israeli defense officials lobbied their U.S. counterparts not to put too much pressure on Egypt due to its importance in regional security.

But early into the Gaza conflict, the White House realized Egypt was the only player who could mediate a ceasefire, U.S. officials tell me.

  • That conclusion led to calls between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, as well as Blinken and Shoukry.
  • Eventually, it led Biden to place his first call as president to Sisi, who assured the U.S. president that Egypt could ensure Hamas stopped firing if Israel adopted the ceasefire.

On Monday, Biden called Sisi again to thank him for his efforts to broker the ceasefire.

  • The White House said Biden and Sisi also consulted on the rebuilding process for Gaza (though there was a reference to human rights at the end of the statement).
  • Blinken today became the first member of Biden's Cabinet to visit Cairo, meeting Sisi and Shoukry.

What’s next: During his trip to the region, Blinken has said repeatedly that Egypt will have a key role in the Gaza reconstruction efforts.

4. Bibi barometer: Lapid's last shot

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

With a week left before his mandate expires, opposition leader Yair Lapid is making a Hail Mary push to form an alternative government and oust Netanyahu.

Why it matters: Two weeks ago, Lapid was on the verge of forming a power-sharing government with Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina Party. But Bennett backtracked amid the Gaza conflict and clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel.

Driving the news: In recent days, Lapid arrived at agreements with all of his center-right and center-left partners — former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

  • Lapid's plan is to use those agreements to send a signal that Bennett will be responsible if a new government isn't formed and Israel is forced to hold a fifth election since 2019, his aides say.
  • Bennett hasn't weighed in publicly, but several close allies within his party have issued statements calling for a return to the power-sharing option.
  • On the other hand, Bennett’s deputy is still trying to find ways to form a right-wing government or a pact with Netanyahu ahead of the fifth election.

Worth noting: Lapid met with Blinken on Tuesday in Jerusalem. Lapid declined to say if they discussed domestic Israeli politics.

What’s next: At the moment, it seems highly unlikely that Lapid will manage to form a government by next Wednesday.

  • In this case, the mandate will return to the Knesset for 21 days. Anyone who can collect signatures from 61 members (a majority) will be able to become prime minister.
  • That leaves some room for a compromise candidate like Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who boosted his public image during the Gaza conflict.
  • Failing that, Israel will head for a fifth election, most likely in October.

The twist: If no new government is formed by November, Gantz will automatically become prime minister under a law that was passed last year when he entered a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu.

5. Cautious optimism in Vienna as Iran talks resume

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Last week's round of indirect nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran in Vienna was the first in which progress was made on both negotiating tracks, sanctions relief and nuclear measures, U.S. officials say.

Breaking it down: The working group focusing on sanctions relief required of the U.S. to return to compliance had made steady progress in the first three rounds. But the other focusing on the nuclear measures required of Iran stalled due to Iran's hardline positions and the question of what happens to Iran's new advanced centrifuges, U.S. officials contend.

  • That led the Biden administration to make clear both privately and publicly that there would be no deal if Iran didn't roll back its nuclear program sufficiently to put its "breakout time" — the time needed to enrich enough uranium for a weapon — at least one year out.
  • But the U.S. side felt Iran showed more flexibility in the fourth round of talks and was reassured that Iran agreed to extend nuclear inspections for another month, avoiding a showdown that could have seriously damaged the chances of a deal.

Driving the news: Iran's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday that he hopes this will be the final round of talks before an agreement is reached. "You can have such hope, but you have to be a little bit cautious," he said.

  • A U.S. official told me a deal is achievable and shouldn't take months to reach, but it will require more nuclear concessions from Iran.
  • “The latest round of talks was constructive and saw meaningful progress. But much work still needs to be done," Rob Malley, who leads the U.S. delegation, tweeted before catching his flight to Vienna.

What to watch: Diplomats involved in the talks are bracing for a possible lull in negotiations ahead of the Iranian presidential elections on June 18.

  • The final list of candidates approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was published on Tuesday. Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, who is closer to the Reformist camp, was excluded, leaving conservative judiciary chief Ibrahim Raisi as the leading candidate.