October 20, 2021

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We’ve got a scoop-filled edition (1,998 words, 7½ minutes) this week on Jake Sullivan’s meeting with MBS, the fate of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, and what a senior civilian leader in Sudan makes of the military’s recent power moves.

1 big thing: Scoop... Sullivan and MBS discussed Saudi-Israel normalization

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg and Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised normalization with Israel during his recent meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, three U.S. and Arab sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Saudi Arabia would be the biggest regional player to sign onto the Abraham Accords peace agreement with Israel, and such a major breakthrough would likely persuade other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit.

Behind the scenes: During the Sept. 27 meeting in Neom, a futuristic planned city on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast, Sullivan raised the issue and MBS didn't reject it out of hand, the sources say.

  • Instead, the Saudis said it would take time and gave Sullivan a list of steps that would have to be taken first.
  • Some of those points involved improvements in U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations, one American source said.

Between the lines: The Biden administration has distanced itself from the Saudis over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom's broader human rights record.

  • Any Saudi move to normalize relations with Israel would most likely be part of a bigger deal that could include Israeli steps on the Palestinian issue and U.S. steps to restore relations with MBS, with whom President Biden has refused to engage directly.

State of play: Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan met Secretary of State Tony Blinken last Thursday in Washington, though neither country mentioned normalization with Israel in their public statements about the meeting.

  • Blinken and Sullivan did discuss expanding the Abraham Accords in their meetings last week with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. A senior Israeli official briefed reporters after Lapid's visit that at least one country would "definitely" sign onto the accords in the next year.
  • Senior Biden administration officials also told Jewish leaders in a conference call last Friday that the U.S. was "quietly" engaging several Arab and Muslim countries that might be open to normalization with Israel, one Jewish leader on the call told Axios.

The backstory: The U.S. has been trying to get Saudi Arabia to gradually normalize relations with Israel for more than a decade.

  • Several Trump administration officials say privately that they would have sealed a deal with Saudi Arabia within a year if Trump had won a second term, and Jared Kushner urged Sullivan to push for a deal with the Saudis when they met during the transition.

Go deeper

2. Scoop: U.S. and Israel to form team to solve consulate dispute

Blinken (left) and Lapid (right) meet in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty

The U.S. and Israel are planning to form a joint team to hold discreet negotiations on the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, Israeli officials say.

Why it matters: The consulate handled relations with the Palestinians for 25 years before being shut down by then President Donald Trump in 2019. Senior officials in Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government see the consulate issue as a political hot potato that could destabilize their unwieldy coalition.

  • Biden told Bennett during their White House meeting in August that he will not abandon his plan to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, setting up a major point of contention between the administrations.

Driving the news: Blinken and Lapid discussed the consulate issue during their meeting in Washington last Wednesday.

  • Lapid pushed back on the U.S. position, saying, “I don’t know how to hold this coalition together if you reopen the consulate," according to Israeli officials.
  • Blinken said he understood the sensitive political situation and wants to start a dialogue to work toward a solution, the officials say.

What's next: Blinken proposed the formation of a small team including Lapid and himself along with one or two aides from each side to discuss the issue with maximum discretion.

  • Lapid agreed but said he wants to hold off on such a dialogue until after the Israeli government passes a budget in the first week of November.

Between the lines: The issue is so politically charged because the U.S. would once again have separate missions for the Israelis and the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The Israelis believe that would infringe on their sovereignty in the city. For the Palestinians, it could strengthen their claim to part of Jerusalem.

  • Asked after Lapid's visit about the possibility of the U.S. instead opening a consulate in the West Bank, a senior Israeli official responded favorably but said he couldn't say whether that was under consideration.

What they're saying: A spokesperson for Lapid said no team was formed yet, and he reiterated that Lapid had made his opposition to the reopening of the consulate clear in all of his meetings in Washington.

  • A State Department spokesperson said, “We have nothing new for you on this issue at this time.”

3. Interview: Sudan civilian leader says military wants power without a coup

Burhan (center) and Dagalo attend a military graduation ceremony. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty

One of the most outspoken and high-profile civilian members of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC), Mohamed Elfaki Suleiman, said in an interview that the military faction of the council wants to create a civilian government it can control without staging a coup, Wasil Ali writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Sudan is facing a political crisis 2½ years after the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir. Thousands took to the streets over the weekend to urge the military to take power, while anti-military demonstrations are planned for Thursday. The protests come just three weeks after a failed coup that the government blamed on Bashir loyalists.

The backstory: The TSC was formed after the revolution in 2019 to oversee a 39-month transition to democratic elections in 2022.

  • Suleiman was one of five civilians nominated by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition to serve on the TSC, which in turn selected Abdalla Hamdok to serve as prime minister.
  • Leadership of the TSC is supposed to transition from Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to a civilian in the coming months, and Suleiman is a strong contender to become the first civilian head of the council.

What's happening: Burhan and his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have escalated their rhetoric against Hamdok's civilian government in recent weeks.

  • They're calling for it to be dissolved and for a new government to include additional political factions (while still excluding Bashir's National Congress Party).

What he's saying: Suleiman, who spoke to Axios by phone from Khartoum, claimed Burhan was driven by ulterior motives.

  • “Burhan does not want to stage a military coup right now because it will be very difficult under the current environment. However, he wants to produce a new political reality by creating a civilian government he can control," he said.
  • Suleiman said Burhan plans to install allies inside the civilian government under the guise of expanding political representation, and the general believes now is the time to strike because of the fatigue and apathy of the Sudanese people over the tough economic situation and political infighting.
  • He also accused Burhan and the military of forestalling reforms of state institutions — including the civil service, judiciary and security sector — which Suleiman said were essential for dismantling the "old state" and transitioning to democracy.
  • For example, the military has had several meetings about the candidates to serve as chief justice, but it has not made any decision, Suleiman revealed. The post has been vacant since May.

The other side: Burhan said this week that he was committed to the transition to an elected civilian government. After the coup attempt, he said it was the military that was protecting the revolution from civilian politicians “who want to steal it,” rather than the other way around.

State of play: Leadership of the TSC is set to shift from Burhan to a civilian, but the timing is disputed.

  • Suleiman dismissed the debate over the timing as a distraction used by the military to portray the civilians as squabbling over posts.

What’s next: Suleiman expressed "100% confidence" that Hamdok will not seek any secret deals with the military and insisted the Sudanese people would overwhelmingly resist any attempts at a military takeover, whatever their misgivings about Hamdok’s government.

  • He asserted that the Constitutional Declaration that established the TSC can only be amended with the consent of both the FFC and the military and that it was up to the FFC and Hamdok — not the military — to determine the makeup of the government.

4. Interview part II: Sudan-Israel normalization to proceed

Hamdok (left) and Burhan. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty

Suleiman dismissed reports that the military and civilian wings of the government are at odds over the decision to normalize ties with Israel, Wasil writes.

Why it matters: Sudan and Israel agreed last October to normalize relations, but the process stalled. The Biden administration is seeking to hold a signing ceremony in Washington in the coming weeks to formally conclude it.

  • Flashback: Burhan met in Uganda with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2020, and the general played a leading role in the decision to normalize ties.

Driving the news: Last month, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi was quoted by the UAE-based The National newspaper as saying, “There's not any sign of normalization with Israel."

  • Al-Mahdi, the daughter of a former prime minister, is known to oppose talks with the Jewish state.
  • Yes, but: Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari held surprise meetings in Abu Dhabi last week with Israel's deputy prime minister and minister for regional cooperation.

What he's saying: Suleiman said those opposing normalization within the government are a minority and the process will proceed.

  • He also claimed that civilian members of the government had been angry about the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting because it was planned in secrecy without their input, not because they opposed links with Israel.
  • Suleiman said he has no issues communicating with Israeli officials in accordance with government policies.

Worth noting: On the thorny issue of handing Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to be charged with crimes against humanity, Suliman claimed the military wing was hesitant to proceed with extradition on the grounds that Bashir holds sensitive state secrets that pose a risk to national security.

  • Suliman said he sees no obstacles to the TSC approving the cabinet decision to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC.

5. After Gulf trip, U.S. Iran envoy to meet European allies

Malley meets Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Photo: Qatari Foreign Ministry handout via Getty

U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley will meet on Friday in Paris with senior diplomats from France, Germany and the U.K. to discuss the stalemate in the nuclear talks with Iran, sources briefed on the meeting told me. Malley will arrive in Paris after a four-day trip to the Gulf.

Why it matters: The nuclear talks have been stalled since June, and America’s Arab partners are extremely concerned by Iran’s nuclear advances in recent months. Several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are engaging with Tehran to try to de-escalate regional tensions.

Driving the news: Malley and the State Department’s point person for the Gulf, Daniel Benaim, started their regional tour in Abu Dhabi and met Emirati national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed and presidential adviser Anwar Gargash. They also met Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein.

  • The next stop was Doha where they met Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who had spoken a day earlier to his Iranian counterpart.
  • Malley then moved on to Saudi Arabia — the most important stop on the trip considering the strained U.S.-Saudi relationship and the ongoing Saudi-Iranian dialogue. He discussed Iran's nuclear program and regional activity with Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, per the official Saudi news agency.
  • Malley also spoke by phone with the foreign minister of Bahrain.

Meanwhile back in Washington, Blinken met on Tuesday with the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

What they’re saying: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday that Iran has never left the negotiating table and is serious about the nuclear talks. “For the other side, a readiness to lift sanctions can be a sign of their seriousness,” he said.

  • The U.S. and its European allies have accused the Iranians of wasting time and warned that their patience is not unlimited.

What’s next: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the UN secretary-general in a phone call on Tuesday that Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, would travel to Brussels next week for talks with EU political director Enrique Mora, who is coordinating the nuclear negotiations. It’s unclear if and when the sides will return to Vienna.