Dec 23, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We have a lot to cover today. While I was in Rabat last night interviewing the Moroccan foreign minister, the government back in Israel was collapsing. We've also got two scoops and a view from the Gulf on U.S.-Iran tensions (1,860 words, 7 minutes).
  • Heads-up: We're off next week, so I'll see you all in the new year.

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1 big thing: Israel uses Milley to pass messages to Biden on Iran

Milley in a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty

Israel used the recent visit by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to pass on several messages to the incoming Biden administration, senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel is very concerned about President-elect Biden's plans on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, but has yet to open direct contacts with the incoming administration. Milley is a potential bridge to Biden's White House because he is expected to stay on beyond the transition.

What they're saying: “We wanted to make our case to the new administration on Iran through someone who is still going to be in the room when Biden assumes office and is going to play a substantive role in any policy review that will take place," an Israeli official said.

Driving the news: Milley arrived in Israel last Thursday after visiting several Arab capitals. It was his third visit to the region this year, and it came amid fears of Iranian retaliation over the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

  • Milley met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Aviv Kochavi.

Behind the scenes: The main message to Milley from the Israelis was that Biden shouldn't rush back into the 2015 deal but should instead take advantage of the fact that Iran is in a weak position, Israeli officials who attended the talks say.

  • If Biden doesn't use the leverage the U.S. has accumulated through its "maximum pressure" sanctions regime, the Israelis argued, he'll find it impossible to make a better deal later.
  • “We stressed that the starting point of any talks with Iran is much better for the U.S. today than it was in 2013. What is needed now is to be tough in order to get a better deal," an Israeli official said.

State of play: Biden says he will return to the 2015 deal if Iran returns to compliance, and he'll attempt to use it as a platform to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting deal. That would require the U.S. to lift sanctions and Iran to unwind its recent nuclear activities.

Milley made clear that he still hasn’t had a chance to speak with members of the incoming administration, but said Biden's national security team has a pro-engagement approach to Iran, according to an Israeli official.

  • Milley even referenced John Kerry and Susan Rice among those who could influence the administration's thinking on Iran, an Israeli official said, despite the fact that their roles (Kerry as climate czar, Rice running the Domestic Policy Council) have nothing to do with Iran.

The Israelis also told Milley that the incoming administration should be more flexible when it comes to relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite concerns over their records on human rights, the officials said.

What’s next: The major policy gaps between the Israeli government and the incoming U.S. administration will likely lead to tensions. Those tensions could increase ahead of Israel's elections, expected in March, if Netanyahu makes his objections to Biden's policies part of his campaign.

2. Exclusive: Moroccan foreign minister urges Biden to keep deal

Bourita (C) with Kushner (L) on Tuesday in Rabat. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita is urging the incoming Biden administration to preserve the deal sealed by President Trump earlier this month, under which the U.S. agreed to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and Morocco agreed to resume diplomatic relations with Israel.

What he's saying: "We realistically think the administration will find a good rationale to preserve this," Bourita told me in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a trilateral U.S.-Israel-Morocco summit on Tuesday in Rabat.

“We hope the next administration will continue this positive dynamic and nourish what we have built because it was done for peace. What we have here is a package which was signed and the first commitment that everyone made was to defend, promote and upgrade this package."
— Nasser Bourita to Axios

Why it matters: The U.S. recognition of Western Sahara was a controversial step that reversed decades of U.S. policy. Israel and Morocco worry that if Biden rolls it back, the rest of the deal could fall apart.

State of play: Biden didn't welcome the agreement, but he didn't criticize it either.

  • Yes, but: International Crisis Group President Rob Malley, who is close to incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken and might join Biden's administration, told the NY Times that Biden could walk back or dilute parts of Trump's normalization deals that defy international norms, as in the case of Western Sahara.

The other side: Bourita contended that the deal was about peace and stability in the region, and about ending two disputes that have lasted longer than they should: the Western Sahara conflict and the Arab-Israeli standoff. “We need to be end-game oriented and not process-oriented," he said.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, a U.S.-Israeli delegation led by Jared Kushner and Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat took a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat.

  • Kushner and Ben-Shabbat met King Mohammed VI and signed six agreements on direct flights, investments and visas.
  • Morocco and Israel committed to reopening diplomatic representation offices in Tel Aviv and Rabat in two weeks, with technical delegations from both countries set to begin that work next week.
  • Both countries held onto the existing diplomatic properties since relations were severed two decades ago, recognizing that they could one day reopen, Israeli and Moroccan officials say.

Bourita told me Morocco differentiates itself from the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan — which normalized relations with Israel over the previous few months — because Morocco first established formal relations with Israel in the early 1990s.

  • “We told our American friends from the beginning, 'Don’t give the same T-shirt to everyone.'"
  • "We were pioneers of the relations with Israel. For us, it is a big event, but we are not building from scratch. ... It is about renewing the traditional contacts and building something which is lasting."
  • “Everything is normal now — we do not plan to go only halfway here," Bourita said.

What’s next: Bourita said Morocco wants to be a bridge builder between Jews and Muslims in the region, and can also help in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

  • “Late King Hassan II did it and King Mohammed VI is ready to do it when conditions are there and when there is a request. His majesty has credibility," Bourita said.

Worth noting: It was crucial for Morocco to pair normalization of Israel, a step that polls suggest only a tiny sliver of Moroccans support, with a far more unifying cause: recognition of Moroccan control of Western Sahara.

Go deeper: Trump hands Morocco a long-awaited breakthrough

3. Scoop: Azerbaijan seeks to mediate between Turkey and Israel

Aliyev (L) with Erdoğan in 2018. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty

Turkey and Israel both played key roles in Azerbaijan's recent victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, several weeks after the ceasefire, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev is trying to mend relations between his two allies, senior Israeli officials tell me.

The big picture: Drones and other weapons systems from both Turkey and Israel helped Azerbaijan gain military superiority over Armenia. But relations between Turkey and Israel have been frozen for most of the past decade.

Driving the news: Aliyev raised the Israel-Turkey tensions in a recent call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israeli officials said.

  • Aliyev's advisers told their Israeli counterparts that Erdoğan responded positively to the idea of improving relations.
  • Erdoğan has a history of bellicose comments on Israel, but Aliyev's advisers claimed that he is not anti-Israel, but had been incited against Israel by aides who no longer advise him.
  • Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said on a recent call with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, that Azerbaijan thinks it is a good time for Israel and Turkey to mend fences.

What they're saying: “Aliyev and his senior advisers have communicated that they want to see both of their good friends — Turkey and Israel — getting back to normal relations and they are willing to help to make that happen," an Israeli official told me.

  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this story, as did Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser.

Flashback: Israeli-Turkish relations have been deteriorating since the 2008 Gaza war, and contacts were frozen almost entirely after the 2010 "Gaza Flotilla incident," in which Israeli commandos attacked activists who were attempting to breach an Israeli blockade to deliver aid to Gaza.

  • Then-President Barack Obama facilitated a trilateral phone call with Netanyahu and Erdoğan in 2013 to try to foster a reconciliation deal.
  • Those talks dragged on until 2016, and the eventual deal unraveled two years later when a new crisis emerged over the Temple Mount.

The latest: There have been several signs in recent months that Turkey wants to re-engage with Israel, in particular over its dispute with Greece and Cyprus over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

  • But Israeli officials say they'll be very cautious, given their suspicions over Erdoğan’s true intentions.
  • In any case, Israel won't harm its relations with Greece and Cyprus in order to mend relations with Turkey.
4. The view from the Gulf: Watching Iran, and Biden

Trump at a Gulf Summit in Riyadh in 2017. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi handout via Getty

The UAE and Saudi Arabia will be closely monitoring any moves from Washington and Tehran over a delicate few weeks ahead, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National, writes from Abu Dhabi.

Why it matters: Jan. 3 will mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad. In the past few weeks, there have been echoes of the tensions that preceded that U.S. attack.

Driving the news: Last week an attack — still unclaimed — on an oil tanker moored off Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast was the second in less than a month to target international shipping.

  • In November, a missile strike on a Saudi Aramco plant near Jeddah was claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Flashback: In the months leading up to the Soleimani killing, there were incidents of sabotage against vessels in the Arabian Gulf and Houthi-claimed missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities.

  • Iran was then seen to be playing its hand amid increasing sanctions pressure from the U.S. after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The killing of Soleimani proved to be an apex of that cycle of tensions.

The state of play: These latest incidents, including the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, have created a new cycle of tensions in the region ahead of President-elect Biden's inauguration.

  • Biden is expected to shift the American posture from maximum pressure to re-engagement with Iran.
  • The concern among Gulf countries is that Iran will test the new administration, or try to take advantage of them.
  • Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia responded to the provocations in 2019 with restraint, and they remain focused on de-escalation.

Worth noting: There are at least two new factors at play, in addition to Biden's election.

  • The U.S. has built up its military force in the Gulf, including a bigger naval presence. And the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab nations have established closer ties with Israel, offering a genuine counterbalance to Iran and its allies and proxies.
5. Bibi barometer: Mark your calendars

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Pool, Gali Tibbon/Getty Images

Israel’s power-sharing government collapsed on Tuesday, only seven months after it was formed, setting the stage for Israel's fourth elections in two years on March 23.

What to watch:

  • Nearly all of the top contenders in this election come from the right. The center-left is fractured, and polls show Benny Gantz's Blue and White party barely above the electoral threshold.
  • That means that while this will essentially be yet another referendum on Netanyahu, it will be harder for him to portray his chief rivals as weak liberals.
  • Netanyahu’s top rival at the moment, Gideon Saar, still has momentum — but he needs more heavyweights to join his new party. The main question is whether former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will join forces with Saar.
  • The election will coincide with the presentation of evidence in Netanyahu's trial. Expect him to focus his campaign on attacking the legal system.

One question: Will Netanyahu go after Biden over Iran in order to boost his campaign?

Go deeper: Read our full coverage