Axios from Tel Aviv

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July 06, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,179 words, 8 minutes) starts with Palestinian and Israeli outrage over the U.S. statement about journalist Shireen Abu Akleh's killing. It also brings you a scoop from Saudi Arabia, before providing an update on the political crisis in Sudan.

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1 big thing: U.S. statement on Abu Akleh killing angered both sides

A person holds a sign with the picture of Shireen Abu Akleh at a protest in London on May 12. Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Israeli and Palestinian officials separately protested in private to the Biden administration over its statement about the investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, according to three U.S. and Israeli officials.

Driving the news: The State Department on Monday said that based on the investigations done by Israeli and Palestinian officials, it was "likely" Abu Akleh was killed by unintentional Israeli fire, but the ballistics test of the bullet removed from the Al Jazeera journalist's body was inconclusive.

  • The U.S. security coordinator "found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel," the State Department added.

The big picture: The statement left both sides unhappy and unsatisfied.

  • Palestinian officials' anger and frustration, which they also expressed publicly, could have negative consequences for President Biden’s upcoming visit to Bethlehem next week and his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Background: Abu Akleh was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

  • After refusing for months, saying they didn't trust Israel, Palestinian officials on Saturday handed the bullet over to the U.S. for a ballistics test.

Behind the scenes: Two Israeli officials directly involved in the issue said the ballistics test for the bullet was done on Sunday, but the release of the U.S. statement was postponed to Monday because of the late hour and due to attempts by both Israeli and Palestinian officials to influence the final text and conclusions.

  • U.S. officials said the postponement in the release of the statement was because the Biden administration wanted to fully brief both parties on the conclusions in advance.
  • The U.S. officials confirmed that after being briefed on the conclusions, both Israelis and Palestinians protested and pressed for changes in the text.

The Israeli government was upset the U.S. statement said Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli fire, despite saying the ballistics test was inconclusive.

  • “We told the U.S. that if the test is inconclusive then the statement should be inconclusive," a senior Israeli official told me.
  • “On Sunday night and Monday morning, there was a long argument over every word and every comma in the State Department statement," a different senior Israeli official told me. A second Israeli official confirmed this description.

The Palestinians had expected that agreeing to a ballistics test would lead to a clear conclusion that Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli fire.

  • They were also angered that the U.S. statement said the Israeli soldier didn’t intentionally target Abu Akleh, a U.S. official said.
  • Several Palestinian officials issued statements Monday rejecting the State Department's conclusions.
  • “We ask the U.S. government to maintain its credibility and hold Israelis fully responsible for the crime of killing Shireen Abu Akleh," Palestinian Presidency spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, accusing Israel of intentionally assassinating the 51-year-old journalist.

What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Tuesday that the goal of the U.S. statement “was not to please anyone” but to put forward what the U.S. security coordinator had found in his summary of the investigations to date.

  • "There was extensive consultation and dialogue with our Israeli partners, just as there was extensive consultation and dialogue with the Palestinian Authority as well," Price said.

What’s next: A senior Israeli official told me the Israeli government decided to emphasize in public the parts of the statement it is more comfortable with and hopes the issue can be put to rest.

  • Palestinian officials still want to pursue it and say they will continue their efforts to bring the case to the International Criminal Court.

2. Scoop: McGurk in Saudi Arabia to finalize plans for Biden's visit

Saudi flag
Photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk traveled to Saudi Arabia today to make the final preparations for President Biden's visit to the kingdom planned for July 15, four sources briefed on the trip told me.

Why it matters: Biden's trip, which will reset his administration's relations with the Gulf kingdom, is seen as diplomatically and politically sensitive. He is expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while there.

  • Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and relations have been strained over a number of issues, including the kingdom's human rights record and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • U.S. intelligence says MBS is responsible for Khashoggi's murder — an allegation Saudi Arabia denies.
  • The White House didn't respond to questions about McGurk's trip.

State of play: Biden will arrive in Saudi Arabia after a visit to Israel and the West Bank. He will take a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah.

  • One part of Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia will focus on a summit with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
  • The second part will be bilateral and will focus on repairing relations, on the U.S. need for an increase in Saudi oil production and on normalization steps between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

What they're saying: During a press conference in Madrid last week, Biden tried to downplay the bilateral part of his trip amid criticism among some Democrats in Congress.

  • "I’m starting off on that trip in Israel and the Israelis believe it’s really important that I make the trip [to Saudi Arabia]," Biden said.
  • He then said he is going for the summit taking place in Saudi Arabia, "but it’s not about Saudi Arabia."
  • "So there’s no commitment that is being made. ... I’m not even sure ... I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that’s not the meeting I’m going to," he added. "They’ll be part of a much larger meeting."
  • The president also said that the trip to Saudi Arabia will deal with deepening Israel’s integration in the region, "which is good for peace and good for Israeli security," and with ending the war in Yemen. 

3. Sudan protesters reject military offer

Anti-coup protesters march against the military in Khartoum on June 30.
Anti-coup protesters march against military rule in Khartoum on June 30. Photo: AFP

Sudan’s military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan signaled in a speech on Monday that for the first time since last year’s coup, he might be willing to return some authority to a civilian government — comments the country's main civilian political bloc rejected as a "tactical retreat," Wasil Ali, the former deputy editor-in-chief of the Sudan Tribune, writes for Axios.

The big picture: Burhan is facing growing pressure from anti-military protesters and the international community to restore the civilian government.

  • Dozens of people have been killed in the protests since the Oct. 25 coup.

Catch up quick: Following the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, the military formed a political partnership with a coalition of major political forces known as Freedom of Forces and Change (FFC) to run the country until elections were held.

  • That arrangement came to an end in the Oct. 25 coup. The military has struggled ever since to establish a government and appoint a prime minister.
  • In a joint effort, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia restored talks between the military and the civilian political factions, but no agreement has been achieved.

Driving the news: In a surprise announcement on Sudan's national television late Monday, Burhan said the military will no longer participate in the dialogue sponsored by the African Union, the UN and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development — an eight-country trade bloc in Eastern Africa.

  • The three organizations have been working to reach a compromise that would pull the country out of the political deadlock.
  • Today, the groups said they had decided to cancel talks in the current format, but will engage parties to figure out the way forward.
  • In his speech, Burhan warned that Sudan is going through a crisis that endangers “its unity and national cohesion." He blamed the situation on political infighting.

Burhan signaled the military would take a step back from politics and let civilians decide among themselves on the formation of a government consisting of “independent and competent figures."

  • He said once that happens, he will dissolve the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC) he chairs but will form a supreme council for the armed forces that will also incorporate the controversial Rapid Support Forces to manage security and defense.
  • Yesterday, Burhan took another step to roll back some of his post-coup decisions, firing five civilian members of the TSC he appointed last November.

The other side: The FFC swiftly rejected Burhan’s speech, calling it a “maneuver” and a “tactical retreat” that came under the pressure of continued street protests.

  • The statement from FFC’s executive office said the announcement fell short of its demand of a full military exit from the political arena by attempting to “impose guardianship” on the formation of the government and its mandate.

What to watch: Burhan acts as the head of state and commander in chief of the Sudanese army. A lingering question will be whether the military and its leaders will agree to report to a civilian head of state who will have control over foreign policy.

4. U.S. pressed Lebanon to criticize Hezbollah for launching drones

Hezbollah flags on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images
Hezbollah flags on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration pressed the Lebanese government to criticize Hezbollah’s attempt to send drones to an Israeli natural gas rig in the Mediterranean and to commit to resolving the maritime border dispute with Israel only through negotiations, sources briefed on the issue told me.

Why it matters: The U.S. is concerned Hezbollah's actions will sabotage its efforts to broker a deal between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border by September.

  • Lebanon and Israel each claim a potentially gas-rich, 330-square-mile area off their borders in the Mediterranean Sea.

Driving the news: The Israeli military on Saturday shot down three Hezbollah drones headed toward the Karish gas rig.

  • Hezbollah said it launched the unarmed drones on a reconnaissance mission meant to send a “message” to Israel.

Behind the scenes: U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein and U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea spoke to senior political and military leaders in Lebanon over the weekend. They raised concerns about the drones incident and asked the Lebanese government to publicly speak against it, sources briefed on the issue said.

  • According to the sources, Hochstein told several senior Lebanese officials that progress in the maritime border dispute with Israel will be achieved only through negotiations and not through provocations by Hezbollah.

What they're saying: After the U.S. pressure, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib on Monday issued a statement committing to the U.S.-led negotiations and criticizing Hezbollah without directly mentioning it by name.

  • "Any act that falls outside the framework of the state's responsibility and the diplomatic track within which negotiations are taking place, is unacceptable and exposes [Lebanon] to unnecessary risks," Bou Habib and Mikati said.

A day later, Hezbollah’s television channel, Al-Manar, responded by criticizing Mikati and Bou Habib without mentioning them by name.

  • “Hezbollah is surprised by the shortsightedness of some political leaders that are ready to give up on some of Lebanon’s leverage. Hezbollah made it clear to those politicians directly that this is a capitulation under U.S. pressure," Al-Manar said, quoting a source in Hezbollah.

5. EU official: Window to revive Iran nuclear deal "may narrow soon"

Illustration of a nuclear warning as a clock face
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Qatar and the EU, who are meditating between the U.S. and Iran over a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal, are trying to prevent the renewed talks from falling apart and press Iran to show more flexibility.

Why it matters: Two days of indirect talks in Doha last week ended with no progress, raising concerns that a collapse of the negotiations could lead to a regional escalation.

Driving the news: In a phone call yesterday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to accept the offer that is on the table for reviving the nuclear deal.

  • Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani arrived in Tehran on Wednesday and met with his Iranian counterpart and Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, to discuss the indirect negotiations with the U.S. on the nuclear deal.

What they're saying: "If we want to conclude an agreement, decisions are needed now. This is still possible, but the political space to revive the [nuclear deal] may narrow soon," Borrell tweeted after talking to Sheikh Mohammed.

  • The Iranian foreign minister responded with a tweet of his own, saying, "an agreement is possible only based on mutual understanding & interests."
  • He added Iran is ready to negotiate a strong and durable agreement but stressed, the "US must decide if it wants a deal or insists on sticking to its unilateral demands."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday that the ball was in Iran's court.

  • "Iran has consistently introduced extraneous demands that go beyond the four walls of the JCPOA, which suggests a lack of seriousness and a lack of commitment by Iran," he said.
  • Price added another round of talks is currently "not on the books." 

The Iranian foreign minister said in a press conference today that Iran didn’t present any demands that go beyond the nuclear deal as the U.S. claims. He said the problem was the U.S. refusal to give guarantees to Iran about the economic benefits of the deal.