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Sep 29, 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 1,955 words (7 minutes).

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1 big thing: Iran's advances spur debate in Israel on nuclear posture

Bennett at the UN. Photo: John Minchillo/Pool/AFP via Getty

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett doesn’t think Israel needs to change its “nuclear ambiguity” policy for now as a response to Iran's latest nuclear advances, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel has never acknowledged that it has a military nuclear program and claims it “won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."

  • But a new report is sparking an unprecedented public debate among politicians and experts about whether Israel’s nuclear posture needs to change to deter Iran.

The backstory: A recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security stated that Iran’s nuclear advances since Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 deal are irreversible and Iran's "breakout time" to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb is only one month.

  • The report, which was based on analyses of UN inspectors' public data, created a debate inside the Israeli security establishment as to whether Iran had become a de facto “nuclear threshold state" — already possessing the capabilities to build a weapon if it decides to do so.

What they're saying: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that Iran had “probably crossed the point of no return," and he hinted that Israel should review the nuclear ambiguity policy.

  • Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote in an op-ed that Bennett will have to reconsider the ambiguity policy as Iran continues to advance its nuclear program.
  • Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pushed back in an op-ed of his own, stressing that any change to the posture would only serve the Iranians, allowing them to claim they need nuclear weapons to deter Israel.
  • Analysts believe Israel has had a military nuclear program since the late 1960s that now includes more than 200 warheads for its long-range Jericho missiles.

Behind the scenes: Bennett read Barak's article and rejected its premise, a senior Israeli official tells me. The prime minister isn't considering a change to Israel's nuclear posture.

“Bennett doesn’t think that it's game over about Iran’s nuclear program. He thinks that Iran is indeed very close to that point, but that there is still time, and if Israel acts on its own and with its allies in a systematic way, it is still possible to stop them."
— senior Israeli official

Driving the news: In his speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday, Bennett threatened to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

  • “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," he said.

State of play: The indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal are still frozen, and the International Atomic Energy Agency accused Tehran on Sunday of violating a deal to allow inspectors to install new surveillance cameras at a key nuclear site.

  • The old cameras were damaged in an act of sabotage at the site in June, which Iran attributed to Israel.

What’s next: Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata will travel to Washington next week for talks on Iran with his White House counterpart Jake Sullivan.

2. Scoop: Biden rejected Abbas meeting at UN

Biden and Abbas in 2010. Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The White House rejected a request from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week, U.S. and Palestinian sources say.

Why it matters: It's unusual for a U.S. president to reject a meeting request from the Palestinians, and it could be seen as further indication of how low the Israeli-Palestinian issue is on Biden’s foreign policy priority list.

The backstory: Several weeks ago, when Abbas and his aides were discussing whether to visit the UN in person, they decided to check the possibility of meeting Biden on the sidelines in New York or soon afterward in Washington.

  • The White House told the Palestinians Biden wouldn't be doing any bilateral meetings in New York and his schedule wouldn't allow for a meeting in Washington, U.S. and Palestinian sources said.
  • That contributed to Abbas' decision not to travel to New York and to send a videotaped speech instead, the sources added.
  • In the end, Biden visited New York only briefly, but he did have three bilateral meetings there. The White House declined to comment for this story.

What they're saying: In his speech at the UN last Tuesday, Biden did stress that he supports a two-state solution, but acknowledged that “we are a long way from that goal at this moment."

Abbas warned in his own speech that Israel's actions would result in a "one-state solution," and he gave Israel a one-year ultimatum to end its occupation of the West Bank, after which time the Palestinians would consider withdrawing their recognition of Israel on the 1967 lines.

  • Abbas also indirectly criticized U.S. policy toward Israel, saying, “There are some countries that refuse to acknowledge the reality that Israel is an occupying power, practicing apartheid and ethnic cleansing."
  • "These countries proudly state that they have shared values with Israel. What shared values are you referring to? This has emboldened Israel, only furthering its arrogance and allowing it to reject and violate all UN resolutions."

Bennett, speaking on Monday at the UN, didn't mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.

  • Bennett's aides say he felt there was already more than enough discussion of the topic at the UN and that Israel didn't need to be viewed through that prism.

What’s next: The Biden administration’s point man on Israel-Palestine, deputy assistant secretary of state Hady Amr, will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah next Monday for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

3. The view on Iran: Back at the table with the Saudis

Iraqi PM Kadhimi with Iranian President Raisi. Photo: Presidency of Iran via Getty

Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia met this week in Baghdad for a fourth round of talks this year, following a months-long hiatus after the election of Iran's new president, writes Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media.

Why it matters: The meetings in Iraq constitute the first serious attempt at dialogue between the two regional rivals following years of tensions and rhetorical venom.

  • Iraqi sources say the agenda is dominated by efforts to repair the bilateral relationship and by regional issues concerning both sides.

Flashback: Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Iran in January 2016. The move came after Iranian protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic facilities over Riyadh’s execution of dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

  • The relationship deteriorated further following the election of Donald Trump, who openly sided with the Saudi leadership in its long-standing confrontation with Iran.
  • Given the administration's animosity towards Iran, Riyadh not only felt no need to talk to Tehran, but was arguably even disincentivized to do so.

Between the lines: The Iran-Saudi dialogue coincides with President Biden’s arrival into office and his attempt to pivot attention away from the region.

  • That has been interpreted by many observers as a sign that Arab partners of the U.S. will be more prone to engage Iran if Washington isn't unconditionally backing the regional status quo.

How it happened: The Iran-Saudi dialogue is an outcome of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s personal efforts to promote a more integrated region and turn his country into a bridge rather than a battleground for competing foreign powers.

  • Kadhimi hosted a summit in late June with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, at which the three countries agreed to deepen economic and security ties.
  • In August, Kadhimi gathered a wider array of leaders from key states such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What’s next: After the event, an Iraqi political source close to Kadhimi revealed to Amwaj.media that the Baghdad Conference was never envisioned as a one-off.

  • “The participants are mulling the idea of making this an annual gathering — each time in a different capital," the source said.
  • At a recent follow-up meeting of the Baghdad Conference, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, all sides —including Iran and Saudi Arabia — agreed that the next session will be held in Jordan.

What to watch: Iraq is set to hold parliamentary elections on Oct. 10, and while Kadhimi is not on the ballot, he is seeking domestic, regional and international backing for a second term.

  • The outcome could have bearing on the future of the regional dialogue, given Kadhimi's role in promoting it.
4. White House warning to Sudan's generals

Gen. Burhan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Amid the political crisis in Sudan, the Biden administration has warned that any attempt to stop the transition from military to civilian leadership could lead to a freeze in U.S. aid.

Why it matters: There is a power struggle brewing between the civilian element of Sudan's government, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and the military side, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The Biden administration has now given its full backing to the civilians.

The big picture: After dictator Omar al-Bashir was toppled in 2019 in a popular uprising, a new Sovereign Council was formed to manage a three-year transition to democracy, led initially by 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.

Driving the news: On Friday, in the wake of a failed military coup that further exposed divisions between the governing factions, national security adviser Jake Sullivan called Hamdok and expressed Biden’s commitment to supporting the civilian-led transition to democracy

  • Sullivan's message was that "any attempt by military actors to undermine the spirit and agreed benchmarks of Sudan’s constitutional declaration would have significant consequences for the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship and planned assistance," the White House said in a statement.
  • That message was reiterated by U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, who is in Khartoum today.
  • It was also underscored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez in a tweet last week that included a threat of sanctions if power was taken by force.

What’s next: The White House said Sullivan invited Hamdok for a meeting with Biden in Washington in the near future.

  • Apart from being another signal of support, the invitation could signal progress in the talks to conclude Sudan's normalization deal with Israel, announced by Trump last October.
  • In the context of that deal, the U.S. took Sudan off the state sponsors of terrorism list, lifted sanctions and provided a $700 million aid package.
  • But the sides still haven't opened diplomatic offices or taken other steps toward normalization. The Sudanese want Biden to give the deal his public blessing in a signing ceremony.
5. Sullivan visits Saudis, Sisi, UAE

Sisi (left) with MBS. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council Handout via Getty

Sullivan met today in Cairo with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Driving the news: They discussed the upcoming elections in Libya, tensions with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and Egypt's efforts to keep the peace in the Gaza strip, per the Egyptian readout.

  • The White House also said ahead of the meeting that Sullivan would raise human rights.
  • He met yesterday with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and he'll meet his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, once he returns to Washington.

But Sullivan's most sensitive stop came on Monday when he became the most senior Biden administration official to visit Saudi Arabia and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

  • Sullivan raised human rights, discussed de-escalation with Iran and had a detailed discussion with MBS about efforts to end the war in Yemen, a senior U.S. official told Axios.

The meeting took place in Neom, a planned city on the Red Sea coast that the crown prince is seeking to develop at an estimated cost of $500 billion.

  • Between the lines: The White House seemed to seek to keep the visit low-profile. No photos of Sullivan and MBS together have been released, and the White House didn't confirm the trip — which was first reported in this newsletter — until Sullivan was already in Saudi Arabia.