Apr 7, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We're back after a week off for Passover with the latest on the post-election scheming in Israel, Iran nuclear talks, Palestinian elections and more (1,822 words, 6½ minutes).

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1 big thing: The Naftali Bennett option

Naftali Bennett (L). Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the first crack at forming Israel's next government, but the job could ultimately fall to a lesser-known figure: Naftali Bennett.

Why it matters: Bennett's right-wing Yamina party won just seven seats in the March 23 elections, but an unprecedented set of political circumstances has created an opening for the former defense minister and tech entrepreneur to replace Netanyahu, with the support of the center-left.

The state of play: For the fourth consecutive election, Netanyahu's Likud was the largest party, but his right-wing bloc failed to win a majority. He's now trying to cobble together a coalition while on trial for corruption.

  • Netanyahu can’t reach out to the other side, because almost everyone outside the right-wing bloc has refused to join his government due to the corruption charges.
  • But Netanyahu’s center-left opponents, led by opposition leader Yair Lapid, are also short of a majority.
  • That leaves two wildcards: Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally now on the fringes of the right-wing camp, and an unaligned Islamist party called Ra’am.

Driving the news: Shortly before Netanyahu was awarded the mandate, Lapid made an audacious proposal: Despite having won more than twice as many seats as Bennett, he was willing to serve under him if it meant getting rid of Netanyahu.

  • Lapid proposed a power-sharing deal that would make Bennett prime minister for two years, at which point Lapid would rotate in for an additional two years.
  • Lapid contended that all of the anti-Netanyahu parties should back Bennett to lead a government that would steer clear of controversial issues, make all decisions by consensus and focus on the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

Bennett didn’t rule out that option, but the negotiations didn’t materialize quickly enough to present any firm understandings to President Reuven Rivlin before he awarded Netanyahu the mandate.

  • Still, Bennett hinted on Tuesday that he would keep negotiating with Lapid behind the scenes.
  • Bennett said he would not sacrifice his positions in order to form a left-wing government, but he stressed the need to form a government that will “reflect a wide range of views and represent the Israeli consensus."

The other side: Netanyahu has 28 days to try to form a coalition. He starts with a right-wing bloc of 52 seats and needs to reach 61 for a majority.

  • To get there, he'd have to bring his former protégé Bennett back into the tent and add Ra’am's four seats.
  • But that coalition would require the radical right-wing Religious Zionism party, which includes Jewish supremacists, to sit in the same coalition with Ra'am, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
  • Netanyahu is a master of the art of political survival, but he has a difficult task ahead of him.

What's next: If he fails, the most likely alternatives are a Bennett-Lapid government that would eject Netanyahu from power or a fifth consecutive election in September.

2. The Iranian view on the Vienna talks

The talks get underway at the Grand Hotel in Vienna. Photo: EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty

The outcome of talks this week in Vienna could determine the path of U.S.-Iran diplomacy for the next six months, Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, writes for Axios from London.

Driving the news: Officials from Iran, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China are meeting in Vienna to try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. U.S. envoy Rob Malley is also in town for parallel talks with his European, Russian and Chinese counterparts, but he's not currently expected to meet the Iranians.

  • Iranian sources tell me Tuesday’s meetings were “positive” and “constructive,” with “mainly generalities” discussed.
  • Working in parallel, the two groups will now address the list of sanctions to be lifted by the U.S. on the one hand and nuclear-related measures to be taken by Iran on the other.

What they're saying: The first step is to reach clarity on what exactly both sides are prepared to do, Iranian sources said.

  • "The choreography then comes into play," one senior Iranian official told me, referring to the sequencing of action. “In that case, the timing is not that important."
  • The senior official added that "a good and principled understanding" that takes some time is "better than a hasty and immature one."
  • “The only timeline we need to bear in mind is the understanding reached during Mr. [Rafael] Grossi’s visit to Tehran last month," the official said.
    • Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief, negotiated a deal to preserve nuclear inspections inside Iran for another three months. That arrangement expires in late May.

Between the lines: If the current nuclear talks prove fruitful, that could pave the way for a radical shift in the public mood in Iran, which is distinguished by broad voter apathy ahead of the presidential elections in June.

  • Hardliners have been ascendant in recent years, and while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is mired in controversy and rare public infighting over the electoral activities of some of its members, the prospect of a “military president” is real.
  • Such a scenario could complicate future diplomacy with Iran. But progress in Vienna could boost the more moderate faction.

What’s next: The working groups will continue their work until Friday, when the Joint Commission will meet again to decide the future course of action. The working groups may continue beyond Friday depending on their progress, sources in Tehran say.

What to watch: Iran is set to unveil 133 “new achievements” on its National Nuclear Technology Day this weekend.

  • Local outlets reported Tuesday that one of the advances is “the beginning of the mechanical test of the IR-9 centrifuge,” with 50 times the output of the current IR-1 centrifuges.
  • If an agreement is reached in the coming weeks, stockpiles of enriched uranium can be shipped out and centrifuges dismantled. But the know-how behind each technological advance cannot be reversed.
3. As the Vienna talks open, Israel strikes an Iranian ship

Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP via Getty

Israel could be risking escalation with Iran and increased tensions with the Biden administration by continuing to strike Iranian ships — a risk that is exacerbated by Israel's political crisis and dysfunctional interim government.

Why it matters: An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ship was attacked in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen on Tuesday, the same day the Vienna talks opened.

The backstory: Over the last two years, Israel has been engaged in a secret military campaign to sabotage dozens of Iranian ships and tankers that had transferred oil to Syria or missile parts to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

  • This campaign was kept under the radar until it was reported several weeks ago by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
  • Around the same time, the Iranians belatedly retaliated by attacking two Israeli-owned ships in the Gulf. Tuesday's attack was an Israeli response.

What they're saying: The Pentagon was quick to tell reporters that the U.S. wasn't involved in the attack, and U.S. officials later told the New York Times that Israel was responsible.

  • The Israeli government has been silent on the attacks other than general statements against Iran.
  • The attacks could complicate U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy and the Biden administration's efforts to end the war in Yemen.

What next: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is due in Israel on Sunday. The regional escalation with Iran will be one of the main topics in his discussions.

4. U.S. prods Israel to provide more water to Jordan

Tony Blinken. Photo: Ken Cedeno-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has encouraged Israel to agree to a Jordanian request for additional water, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli-Jordanian relations have recently sunk into a new crisis after a period of slow improvement, and the water supply is another point of tension.

The backstory: Israel has committed under past agreements to supply Jordan with water. Every year, Jordan asks for an additional amount, and Israel typically agrees right away.

Driving the news: But when a joint water committee met last month and the Jordanians asked for additional water, Netanyahu did not immediately consent.

  • Haaretz reports that this was retaliation for Jordan scuttling his plans to travel to Abu Dhabi last month.

Flashback: Last month, a visit by the Jordanian crown prince to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was canceled at the last minute due to Israeli security restrictions.

  • The Jordanians retaliated by not allowing Netanyahu to fly to Abu Dhabi from Amman, which led to the cancellation of the trip.
  • Netanyahu intended to escalate further by shutting down Israeli airspace to Jordanian planes but backed down at the last minute.

Around 10 days ago, Jordan's foreign minister raised the water issue with the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestine, Hady Amr, according to a U.S. official.

  • Last Friday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken raised it in his phone call with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
  • Blinken complimented Ashkenazi for his efforts to improve relations with Jordan, stressing Jordan's importance to regional stability, but asked why Israel had not approved the Jordanian request for more water, Israeli officials say.

The state of play: As of Tuesday night, Netanyahu still hadn't signed off. Israeli officials say political turmoil in Israel is delaying many national security decisions, including this one.

5. Palestinian elections: Worries of a Hamas victory grow

Checking the electoral roles in Hebron, West Bank. Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty

Blinken and Ashkenazi also discussed their concerns about the upcoming Palestinian elections, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Both the Biden administration and the Israeli government are concerned about a potential Hamas victory, but avoid saying so publicly so as not to be blamed for trying to sabotage the vote.

Driving the news: Ashkenazi stressed that Israel wouldn't put any obstacles in the way of the May 22 elections, but raised concerns that divisions within President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party could pave the way for a Hamas win, Israeli officials tell me.

  • Blinken told Ashkenazi the U.S. would not object to the elections.

Between the lines: Israeli officials say that while neither the U.S. nor Israel will actively oppose the elections, both sides would be relieved if the vote were postponed.

The state of play: There will be 36 electoral lists in the upcoming elections, with just one united list for the Islamist Hamas movement and several separate lists for the secular Fatah.

  • As in the 2006 elections, infighting inside Fatah led to a rift between some of the party's most prominent officials.
  • Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader who is currently in an Israeli prison, decided to support a list headed by Nasser al-Qudwa, a former foreign minister who was expelled from Fatah over his criticism of Abbas.
  • Mohammed Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, will support a separate list of ex-Fatah activists.

Behind the scenes: The Blinken-Ashkenazi call was the first high-level discussion between Israel and the U.S. about the Palestinian elections, but it was a relatively short part of the conversation.

  • Israeli officials tell me they are concerned that the election, and Israel-Palestinian issues in general, is a low priority for the Biden administration.

What they're saying: The State Department's public line on the Palestinian elections appears to be a holdover from previous administrations.

  • “The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people to determine," a State Department official told me, adding that it's important for participants in the democratic process to accept previous agreements, renounce violence and terrorism, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
  • Worth noting: This is the third time I have received the exact same response from the State Department about the Palestinian elections.

What’s next: A key question is whether Israel will allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. Israeli officials note that they agreed to do so in 2006, hinting it won't be an obstacle.

  • Abbas’ aides have been publicly raising this issue in recent days, which could signal they might use it as a pretext for postponing the elections.