Feb 24, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv

  • This week's edition (1,589 words, 6 minutes) is packed with original reporting. I hope you enjoy it and tell a friend to sign up.
1 big thing: Scoop... U.S. and Israel to resume working group on Iran

Biden and Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty

The United States and Israel have elected to reconvene a strategic working group on Iran, with the first round of talks on intelligence surrounding the Iranian nuclear program expected in the coming days, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sharply contrasting views of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but the resumption of the working group is a signal that their governments are starting with a serious and professional dialogue rather than a political fight.

Flashback: The working group was established in the early days of the Obama administration following a White House visit from Netanyahu in 2009. The top-secret forum was even given a special code name.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure to 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.
  • The forum is headed by the U.S. and Israeli national security advisers — currently Jake Sullivan and Meir Ben-Shabbat — and includes top officials from across the various national security, foreign policy and intelligence agencies in both countries.

Driving the news: Sullivan proposed the resumption of the working group in his first phone call with Ben-Shabbat on Jan. 23.

  • Israel was engaged in an interagency disagreement over how to engage with the White House over Iran, and the decision of whether to accept the proposal was further delayed by Israel's domestic turmoil ahead of next month's elections.

Behind the scenes: On Monday, Netanyahu held the first high-level interagency meeting on Iran with Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and the chiefs of the other national security and intelligence agencies.

  • The meeting started with the various agencies providing updates on their engagements to date with the Biden administration, to provide a full picture of what had been discussed through the various channels, sources familiar with the meeting tell me.
  • Next came proposals on how to engage with the Biden administration going forward. The directors of the Mossad intelligence agency and Israel Defense Forces both stressed the need for a quiet dialogue, free from public confrontations.
  • The main action item was the decision to accept the proposal to resume the working group.

What's next: The top Israeli priority in the first meeting — which will take place over a secure video conference system — is to lay out all the latest intelligence and data on Iran's nuclear program and assess whether the U.S. and Israeli intelligence pictures align.

  • Israeli sources familiar with the issue say that a mutual intelligence baseline must be established before moving on to policy discussions.

The state of play: Netanyahu swiftly expressed concern last Friday after Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the U.S. was prepared to begin nuclear talks with Iran aimed at restoring the 2015 deal.

2. Scoop: Netanyahu asked Biden to keep ICC sanctions

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/ANP/AFP via Getty

Netanyahu asked Biden in their first phone call last week to keep sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in place, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli officials are concerned that removing the sanctions would hamper Israel's efforts to stop a potential war crimes investigation into Israel, and that the court's prosecutor could see it as a signal that the U.S. isn't firmly opposed to that investigation.

The big picture: ICC judges cleared the way for a potential investigation last month when they ruled that the court has jurisdiction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Israel isn't a party to the Rome Statute, which set the court's mandate, but the Palestinian territories are.)

  • Israel is very concerned that any investigation could lead to international arrest warrants against Israeli officials and military officers and could boost BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns against Israel.
  • Israel asked dozens of allies to convey a "discreet message" to urge ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda not to move forward with the probe, as Axios reported two weeks ago.

Flashback: While also not a party to the Rome Statute, the U.S. has had its own confrontations with the ICC, which elected last March to pursue an investigation into the war in Afghanistan, which could implicate U.S. troops and the CIA.

  • The Trump administration reacted furiously, imposing sanctions against ICC officials, including Bensouda, and threatening to sanction the court's judges next.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised further steps if the ICC opened a probe into Israel.

The state of play: Israeli diplomats have made the case to their U.S. counterparts that even if the administration disagrees with the sanctions, it should keep them in place as leverage to dissuade Bensouda and her successor from pursuing the investigations into Afghanistan or the West Bank and Gaza.

  • The issue was raised in a recent phone call between Ashkenazi and Blinken, Israeli officials say.

What they're saying: “In my phone call with President Biden, we talked about our moral obligation to protect our troops against those who are trying to defame their morality with false claims," Netanyahu said last Thursday at a memorial service for soldiers who were missing in action.

  • His comments went unnoticed, but Israeli officials tell me he was hinting at the possible ICC investigations against Israeli and American soldiers.
  • Netanyahu's office declined to comment for this story, as did the White House and State Department.
3. On the move: Barbara Leaf to shift from NSC to State Dept.

Leaf with then-Secretary of State Kerry in the UAE in 2015. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty

The newly minted senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council, Barbara Leaf, is now expected to be nominated as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, four sources familiar with the issue tell me.

Behind the scenes: The reasons for the swift job switch aren't clear, but both the White House and Blinken support her appointment in the new role.

  • Blinken wants to fill the regional assistant secretary posts with career foreign service officers, and Leaf served at the department for 25 years, including as ambassador to the UAE, before retiring in 2018.

Why it matters: The assistant secretary for Near East affairs is the most senior U.S. diplomat on the Middle East portfolio.

  • Leaf is expected to handle the administration's efforts to strengthen and broaden the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.

Worth noting: Leaf speaks Arabic and has years of experience in the Middle East, though most of it comes on issues relating to Iraq and the Gulf.

  • Like other senior Biden administration officials dealing with the Middle East, she has less experience on issues like the Levant and Israel-Palestine.
  • The White House and the State Department declined to comment but didn’t deny the story.
4. U.S. won't move on Jerusalem consulate before Israel's election

The former U.S. Consulate. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The State Department is putting plans to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem on hold until after Israel's March 23 elections, sources familiar with the matter tell me.

Why it matters: Biden committed during the campaign to reopening the consulate, which will be a major step toward normalizing U.S.-Palestinian ties. But it also requires Israeli approval.

  • The State Department recognizes that raising the issue during the campaign will further politicize the matter and make it harder to accomplish, the sources say.

The backstory: The consulate dates back to 1844 and served for 25 years as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians before being shut down by the Trump administration and merged into the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in 2019.

Driving the news: There have already been several meetings on this issue in the State Department, the sources say.

  • Some department staff expressed reservations about reopening the consulate for logistical and administrative reasons after all the work that went into merging it with the embassy.
  • But it very quickly became clear that the policy decision on the matter was final, and the questions were when and how it would be executed.

Behind the scenes: Discussions have since focused on two options.

  1. Reopening the consulate in its previous location on Agron Street in West Jerusalem.
  2. Shifting it to a new location in East Jerusalem. Such a move would be packed with political symbolism, signaling that the U.S. recognizes that the Palestinian capital should be in East Jerusalem. But it would encounter sharp Israeli pushback.

Worth noting: A State Department official told Axios, “We look forward to deepening our engagement with the Palestinian people and leadership. As part of that, we are reviewing our U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground to ensure that it enables us to fully conduct our complete range of activities, including engagement, public diplomacy, assistance and diplomatic reporting."

5. No early Biden moves on Western Sahara

A Moroccan flag waves in Western Sahara. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty

There are no signs that the Biden administration intends to roll back the Trump administration’s recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco anytime soon.

Why it matters: Trump’s move on Western Sahara was a dramatic shift in U.S. policy. Undoing it would damage relations with Morocco and could cause Rabat to reverse its promise to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, made as part of the deal with Trump.

The big picture: Western Sahara is a sparsely populated, disputed territory that borders Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa. It was formerly controlled by Spain and is now claimed by Morocco despite international opposition and resistance from the indigenous population.

The state of play: The Western Sahara decision is among several Trump policies that are under review at the State Department.

  • But current and former U.S. officials tell me the administration seems to be in no rush to deal with the issue.

Driving the news: A bipartisan group of 27 senators led by Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) signed a letter last week urging Biden to roll back the Western Sahara decision. In the letter, they claimed:

“The abrupt decision by the previous administration … was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent U.S. policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations. We respectfully urge you to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara."

The latest: State Department spokesperson Ned Price said he had no updates on the matter when asked in Monday's press briefing,

  • He stressed that the Biden administration supports Morocco-Israel normalization, and supports the UN's work to monitor a ceasefire in Western Sahara and push for a referendum.