Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv
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Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv
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.
Driving the news: Sullivan proposed the resumption of the working group in his first phone call with Ben-Shabbat on Jan. 23.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
Why it matters: The assistant secretary for Near East affairs is the most senior U.S. diplomat on the Middle East portfolio.
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.
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 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.
Behind the scenes: Discussions have since focused on two options.
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."
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.
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,