May 31, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,994 words, 7½ minutes) brings you two scoops from Israel and one from D.C.
  • ICYMI: Senior Biden adviser Brett McGurk took a low-profile trip to Oman for talks with Omani officials on possible diplomatic outreach to Iran regarding its nuclear program. Go deeper.

đź‘€ First look: A bipartisan group of senators is introducing a new bill aimed at boosting cybersecurity cooperation between the U.S. and Abraham Accords countries. Read more.

  • đź“… Situational awareness: Axios from Tel Aviv will be off next week, but it'll return to your inbox on June 14.

1 big scoop: Israeli Foreign Ministry to boycott event focused on spitting attacks

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Archbishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, leads a Palm Sunday march on April 2. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Israeli Foreign Ministry will boycott a conference in Jerusalem next week that will focus on the growing wave of attacks by Jewish Israelis against Christians in Jerusalem, according to the organizers and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials.

Why it matters: It's a highly unusual decision. Israel's Foreign Ministry is the main government agency tasked with strengthening relations with the Christian world and Israel's ties with the different churches.

  • The current Israeli government — the most right-wing in the country's history — includes far-right and ultranationalist ministers who have expressed Jewish supremacist views. Some of the supporters of these far-right parties are also known for their anti-Christian activities.
  • The attacks — and the government's response — could also impact Israel's relationship with the Christian evangelical community, which Israeli governments, including the current one, have seen as a base of political support, particularly in the U.S.

Driving the news: In recent months, there has been a growing trend of attacks and harassment, including spitting and vandalism, by ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist religious Jews against Christian nuns, priests and pilgrims in Jerusalem.

  • Last Sunday, dozens of Israeli ultranationalist religious activists, including Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, demonstrated against a Christian prayer event for pilgrims near the Western Wall. Many of those who attended the event were evangelicals who prayed for Israel.
  • Ultranationalist activists spat at the pilgrims, cursed them and some pushed them. According to the Haaretz newspaper, King said at the demonstration that Christians should have freedom of worship only inside churches.

State of play: The Israeli government has largely remained silent on the attacks. The Foreign Ministry tweeted on Monday condemning “any violation of freedom of religion and worship in Jerusalem” without specifically referring to the violent demonstration the day before.

In response to the attacks, Yisca Harani, one of Israel’s leading experts on Christianity who has advised the Foreign Ministry in the past, organized an academic conference in Jerusalem.

  • The conference, which is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on June 16, is titled, “Why do (some) Jews spit on Gentiles."
  • Harani told me she invited the heads of churches, foreign diplomats and representatives of Israeli government ministries and the Jerusalem municipality.
  • “I got a call from a Foreign Ministry official who told me that the name of the conference is inappropriate and, therefore, they are not going to attend" the event, she said.
  • Harani said other government ministries also got cold feet and haven’t confirmed their participation. “It is clear to me that this is a policy that comes from the top," she stressed.

What they're saying: An official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry said domestic political sensitivities played a role in the decision not to attend the conference.

  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement the decision not to attend was made due to the one-sided nature of the conference and its title. "This decision has nothing to do with politics," the statement said.

The big picture: High-level clergy in Jerusalem have blamed, at least in part, the far-right government, which includes ultranationalist ministers, for the growing wave of attacks.

  • Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said in an interview with an Italian newspaper in March that unlike in the past, he doesn’t have access to Israeli government ministers and has to speak to low-level officials. He said the reason is that some ministers don’t want to upset their political base.
  • Nikodemus Schnabel, who presides over the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem, told the German newspaper SĂĽddeutsche Zeitung that attacks against Christians have increased because "those who hate Christians now sit in the government."

2. Scoop: Nides sent Bibi letter urging him to suspend NGO legislation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week urging him not to move forward with legislation that would limit the ability of Israeli nongovernmental organizations to raise money from foreign governments, two Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

Why it matters: Netanyahu took the legislation off the table for further review following U.S. and European pressure.

Driving the news: The bill presented by a member of Knesset from Netanyahu’s Likud party stated that NGOs that receive money from foreign governments won’t be recognized as nonprofit organizations and will have to pay 65% tax.

  • The bill was initially scheduled to be voted on last Sunday in the ministerial committee for legislation before moving to the Knesset.

Behind the scenes: Nides and other U.S. diplomats privately worked for weeks to urge the Israeli government to back off from the bill, the Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • Many other Western countries, including close Israeli allies like Germany, the U.K., France and the Netherlands, also privately and publicly lobbied the Israeli government against the bill, European diplomats told me.
  • The foreign ministers of Germany and the U.K. even sent text messages last week to Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, warning about the consequences of the bill on Israel’s international standings and image, the diplomats said.

Nides' letter to Netanyahu, which has not been previously disclosed, laid out the concerns the Biden administration has about the proposed bill, a U.S. official said.

  • "We didn’t threaten the Israelis or anything like that, but our message was that this bill is going to get Israel into an international crisis for something that isn’t worth it," a U.S. official said.
  • The Prime Minister's Office confirmed Netanyahu received the letter.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office told reporters on Saturday the bill had been taken off the agenda for review because it would do more harm than good.

3. Scoop: Harris to attend Israeli Embassy's 75th independence day reception

Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to give a speech next week at the Israeli Embassy's reception celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary, according to a White House official and an Israeli source.

Why it matters: Vice presidents, including Joe Biden and Mike Pence, have attended the reception in the past. But President Biden's decision to send such a high-level representative to the event carries extra weight considering that Netanyahu still hasn't received a White House invitation — five months after taking office.

Details: The reception is scheduled to take place on June 6 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff will also attend the event, the sources said.

What they're saying: A White House official said Harris’ remarks at the event "will celebrate the unshakeable bond between the U.S. and Israel, and she will reaffirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security."

  • “The vice president is proud of her work to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Israel throughout her career. ... The vice president and second gentleman look forward to celebrating the 75th anniversary alongside the Israeli Embassy and members of the Jewish American community," the White House official said.

The big picture: The U.S. did not attend the UN's first-ever ceremony earlier this month commemorating the Nakba, or the "catastrophe," which marks the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the events that led to Israel's founding in 1948.

  • The U.S. Mission to the UN cited what it called "longstanding concerns over anti-Israel bias within the UN system, which is counter-productive to peace."

4. Normalization watch: Iran courts Egypt

Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on May 29. Photo: Handout/Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iran has turned its sights on normalizing ties with Egypt, the most populous Arab country, after Tehran's major deal on reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

Why it matters: Iranian-Egyptian relations have been very poor since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A diplomatic thaw could represent a significant shift in the region.

  • The Iranian-Egyptian talks are part of a wider normalization process in the region between countries from the Saudi-led camp and the Iranian axis in the Middle East.

Driving the news: Reports about a possible diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Egypt began to emerge in the Arab press shortly after the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was announced in March.

  • According to al-Araby al-Jadeed, the London-based New Arab news outlet, Iraqi officials began mediating between Egyptian and Iranian officials in Baghdad in late March. At least another two rounds of talks have taken place since then.
  • The talks focused on reducing tensions in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The two sides also discussed the possibility of a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the UAE-based The National news outlet reported.
  • But the possibility of a rapprochement started to look more serious last week when Omani Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq visited Cairo. Possible Omani mediation between Egypt and Iran was one of the issues discussed, according to several reports.
  • The Omani sultan on Monday visited Tehran and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Following the meeting, Khamenei tweeted that Iranian officials "welcome Egypt’s interest in restoring relations with Iran and we have no problem in this regard."

What to watch: Iranian government spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahromi on Tuesday said Raisi instructed Iran’s Foreign Ministry to “pursue in a serious manner” the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations with Egypt.

  • Yes, but: The Egyptian government has stayed almost completely silent about the talks with Iran. In an interview in mid-May, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry called the reports “speculations” and said there is no change in Egypt’s relations with Iran.

Flashback: Tehran cut ties with Cairo shortly after the revolution to protest against Egypt's decision to give asylum to the deposed Iranian shah and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

  • Iran even named one of the central streets in Tehran after Khalid Al-Islambouli, an Egyptian army officer who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This became a symbol of the hostility between the countries.
  • Relations were restored in the 1990s but kept at a very low level. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi won the Egyptian presidential elections in 2012, relations between the countries warmed. But they cooled again after Morsi was deposed a year later.

5. What to expect from ErdoÄźan's third term as economic woes worsen

ErdoÄźan. Photo: Cemal Yurttas/Dia images via Getty

With a fresh mandate after Sunday's presidential election in hand, Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄźan is expected to focus on the country's growing economic crisis and regional challenges amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, Menekse Tokyay writes for Axios from Ankara.

Driving the news: Turkey’s economic outlook appears increasingly vulnerable ahead of Erdoğan's third term. The country’s central bank reserves dropped into negative territory last week for the first time in 21 years.

  • The Turkish lira, meanwhile, hit a new low on Wednesday, with Morgan Stanley saying the currency could continue its slide this year faster than expected.

What to expect: Attracting foreign investment will be key for ErdoÄźan, especially as his party seeks to win back control in the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities, which are currently led by the opposition.

  • ErdoÄźan is expected to visit Gulf countries to thank them for their financial support.
  • He will also likely continue to forge close ties with Moscow in diplomatic and economic terms, helping Russia bypass Western sanctions and trying to render Turkey more independent from the West.
  • At the same time, ErdoÄźan could unblock Sweden’s access to NATO in return for securing a commitment from Washington for a deal on F-16 fighter jets ahead of NATO’s mid-July summit in Lithuania.
  • The issue came up in a Monday phone call between President Biden and ErdoÄźan. "He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let's get that done. And so we'll be back in touch with one another," Biden told reporters after the call.

Between the lines: The ultranationalist and Islamist parties in ErdoÄźan's parliamentary coalition are expected to have a lot of influence on policy-making.

State of play: The new Cabinet is expected to be announced on Friday.

  • On Monday, ErdoÄźan reportedly held talks with Mehmet Simsek, a former finance minister who enjoys trust in foreign markets, signaling a possible shift in his unorthodox economic policies, including higher interest rates, which the opposition had pledged to reverse.
  • Reports also suggest ErdoÄźan is considering appointing two of his closest confidants — presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency — to the new Cabinet.