Dec 9, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We're starting with Iran, traveling to Sudan and ending with some very surprising news from the world of Israeli soccer (1,790 words, 7 minutes)
  • Happy Hanukkah to all of you who will be celebrating. We'll be off next week for the holiday.

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1 big thing: Biden and Bibi on collision course over Iran

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Eric Baradat (AFP), Gali Tibbon (AFP)/Getty Images

The incoming Biden administration and the Israeli government are on a collision course over the future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Why it matters: There is a growing gap between Biden’s stated intention to re-enter the deal and Israel’s expectations and public demands against it.

Split screen:

  • Biden’s soon-to-be national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, reiterated at a WSJ conference on Monday that the new administration will first attempt to put Iran “back into the box” of the nuclear deal and only then move toward a “follow-on negotiation” to include Iran’s missile program and its regional behavior.
  • That same day, Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said on MSNBC that what “keeps him up at night” is the thought that the U.S. would return to the deal.

Netanyahu has personally started campaigning against any return to the deal, which he vocally opposed in the first place and then encouraged President Trump to abandon.

  • That could lead to a "Groundhog Day" scenario, in which U.S.-Israel relations under Biden become a repeat of the Obama era.
  • That follows four years in which Netanyahu's government and the Trump administration were totally aligned on Iran, including over Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign.

What they're saying:

  • At a conference on Iran on Monday, one of Israel’s most senior defense officials said Israel expects Biden to keep all of Trump's sanctions in place, despite Biden's statements to the contrary.
  • "Don’t give up the sanctions five minutes before you start the negotiations," insisted Zohar Palti, who oversees the political-security division at the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
  • Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Palti said Trump had done an "outstanding job with sanctions." Biden, he said, had to take office showing a willingness to be tough on Iran, rather than an unreasonable expectation that Iran would compromise.

The other side: Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is likely to get a senior Middle East job in Biden's administration, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Israel would have a chance to make its case in early, high-level consultations with the Biden administration.

  • But Shapiro also wrote that Israel "will have no ability to dictate U.S. policy."
  • Instead of getting into a clash with Biden over a U.S. return to the deal, Shapiro wrote, the Israeli government should focus on developing a common strategy with the new administration over the next step: what a follow-on deal should look like. 

What’s next: In the coming days, an Iranian law will come into force setting a 60-day deadline for the U.S. to lift sanctions. If the U.S. doesn't do so, the law states, Iran will raise uranium enrichment levels to 20% and limit UN inspectors' access to its nuclear sites.

The bottom line: Swift diplomacy and decision-making over the nuclear deal will be required once Biden takes office in January. He can expect opposition from Israel.

2. The view from Khartoum

Reading about the U.S. election results, in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP via Getty

Most Sudanese thought until recently that getting off the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list was a done deal. Now they realize it's more complicated, Sudanese journalist Wasil Ali writes from Khartoum.

Why it matters: One crucial element of the trilateral deal between the U.S., Israel and Sudan was the restoration of Sudan's sovereign immunity, which would protect the country from future terror-related lawsuits.

  • While Sudan will soon be officially removed from the terror list, it still needs the U.S. Congress to pass the immunity legislation in the coming days, or else foreign investors may steer clear of Sudan for fear of entanglement in multibillion-dollar terror claims.

Background: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok's government agreed to pay compensation to resolve the existing lawsuits, which were tied to the harboring of al-Qaeda by former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

  • Hamdok and his Cabinet argued that without the compensation payments there would be no delisting and no sovereign immunity legislation from Congress.

The other side: That decision angered many Sudanese, who felt they should not pay for the deeds of the previous regime. Quite to the contrary, some argued they should be rewarded for toppling Bashir.

  • As one Sudanese activist asked on Twitter: “Will Sudan be required to pay for the sinking of Titanic to get off the terrorism list?”
  • Some argued that Hamdok should have continued the fight in court rather than succumb to "blackmail." Others asserted that Sudan should have refused to pay a dime, especially at a time of great economic distress.
  • All of the critics had something in common: a lack of trust in the U.S. to follow through on its delisting promises and a suspicion that Washington would keep moving the goalposts.

What’s next: Negotiations between the Trump administration and Democratic senators over the immunity bill are still ongoing with time running out.

  • The main stumbling block is the demand by families of 9/11 victims to be able to file lawsuits against Sudan, even though there is no evidence Sudan was involved in the attacks.
  • A sense of concern and even despair can be felt among the public and in government circles in Khartoum, particularly as the economic situation becomes more dire.

State of play: There are signals that the three-way deal with Israel and the U.S. is starting to bring Sudan out of the cold.

  • Executives from Boeing visited Khartoum last week to discuss reviving the national airline, and an Israeli economic delegation also arrived for talks.
  • The Israelis are even lobbying Congress to pass the Sudan immunity bill — a move that will dull the remaining opposition in Sudan to the normalization process.

The bottom line: Even if the immunity bill fails, Sudan is unlikely to back away from normalization, in part because Israel has Washington’s ear and can deliver the goods for the East African nation.

3. Bibi barometer: A big bang in Likud

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

A major defection from the ruling Likud party on Tuesday could shake up Israel's right-wing bloc and change the country's entire political map.

Driving the news: Gideon Saar — a former education and interior minister under Netanyahu who challenged him for the Likud leadership last year — announced he's breaking away to form a new right-wing party and take on Netanyahu in Israel's next election.

Why it matters: This is very bad news for Netanyahu with an election looming early next year. If Saar’s party is able to take even three to five seats from Likud, and Saar stands by his plan to keep it out of any Netanyahu-led coalition, it will be almost impossible for Netanyahu to form a right-wing government.

  • Moreover, Saar is vehemently against Netanyahu’s most urgent aspiration: to stop his corruption trial, either by passing laws to cancel it or taking steps like firing the attorney general.
  • “The party turned into a cult for one person. Netanyahu can’t give Israel the unity and stability it needs. The most important thing right now is to replace Netanyahu," Saar declared on Tuesday.

Background: Saar resigned from the government and the Knesset six years ago over his bad relations with Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

  • He later returned to politics and launched a leadership challenge against Netanyahu, ultimately winning just 27% of the vote to Netanyahu's 72%.
  • Netanyahu took revenge by declining to appoint him as a minister when the current government was formed.

The big picture: Saar is the latest in a long list of senior Likud members who have left the party in recent years after falling out with Netanyahu.

  • On Tuesday, he said Likud had turned into an empty vessel, serving only to ensure Netanyahu's legal and political survival.
  • Saar’s move boosts the anti-Netanyahu bloc in the Israeli political system, but he'll need to convince voters to join him in abandoning Likud.

What’s next: Saar resigned this morning from the Knesset in order to be legally able to run in the next elections with a new party. The name of the party is expected to be New Hope.

  • At least four right-wing members of the Knesset, two of them from Likud, are expected to announce in the next few days that they are joining Saar.

State of play: The bill to dissolve the Knesset passed through a special committee on Wednesday and will move to a first reading on Monday. The bill proposes that the elections take place on March 16.

4. COVID diplomacy: Israel halts plan to label UAE a "red state"
Data: Our World in Data;; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios 

Israel's Health Ministry planned to designate the UAE a "red state," requiring any Israelis who visit the country to quarantine for 12 days upon return, but the Foreign Ministry intervened to block the move, officials tell me.

Why it matters: Thousands of Israelis plan to spend the upcoming Hanukkah vacation in Dubai, which is one of the only destinations to which Israelis can travel without facing COVID-19 restrictions.

  • The UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are currently the only "green states" for which a quarantine period isn't required after travel.

The Health Ministry's plan wasn't based on a rise in COVID-19 cases, but on the concern that a surge in travel to Dubai could result in some travelers returning to Israel with the virus.

  • But the Emirati government protested to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, arguing that their infection levels don't warrant such a designation.
  • According to Israeli officials, the Emiratis warned that the move would harm the fast-moving process under which the countries are deepening relations, including on travel.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi asked Health Minister Yuli Edelstein today not to go forward with the designation because of diplomatic sensitivities.

What’s next: Israeli Ministry of Health officials tell me they will revisit the decision in two weeks, but admit that then too diplomatic considerations will be the main factor.

5. One sports thing: An unlikely buyer for a controversial club

Beitar fans at a match against an Arab-Israeli team. Photo: AFP via Getty

An Emirati businessman has shocked Israeli sports fans and politicians by buying 49% of the shares in Israel's most famous soccer team, Beitar Jerusalem.

Why it matters: The club is identified with the Israeli right, in particular the ruling Likud Party. It's the only Israeli top division team that has never signed an Arab player.

Some of Beitar’s hardcore fans are infamous for their racist jeers and chants during games, including “death to the Arabs."

  • The Israeli owner of Beitar Jerusalem, Moshe Hogeg, has tried to clean up the club's image and end displays of racism during games.
  • While the investment was a financial transaction, it will also put the team and its supporters at a crossroads given the long-standing links between the club and anti-Arab ideology.
  • Beitar Jerusalem’s most hardline and occasionally violent group of fans, known as “La Familia,” have already protested the deal.

The state of play: The Emirati businessman, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Nahyan, claims he is part of Dubai's royal family. As part of the deal, which came two months after the normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, he committed to invest more than $90 million in the team over the next decade.

  • But Israeli reporters are raising a number of questions about the Emirati businessman, mainly due to the fact he is not very well known inside the UAE.

What he's saying: At a press conference on Tuesday, Sheikh Hamad said he planned to bring an Arab player to Beitar Jerusalem for the first time and wasn't worried about opposition from “La Familia."

  • “We want to set an example that Jews and Muslims can work together. La Familia are brainwashed. They are part of the dark side, and we need to reach out to them and show them the light."