March 15, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,251 words, 8½ minutes) starts with how the U.S. views the China-brokered Iran-Saudi deal. It also brings you a major scoop on Israel and Ukraine.
  • And I talked to the UN envoy for Middle East peace about what steps can be taken to de-escalate tensions in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Situational awareness: I'm heading to Berlin to cover Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to express concerns over the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan. Read more.

1 big thing: U.S.-Saudi relations in "better spot," regardless of deal

From left: Musaid Al Aiban, Saudi national security adviser; China's top diplomat Wang Yi; and Iran's top security official Ali Shamkhani. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Biden administration has seen gradual but significant improvement in its relations with Riyadh, regardless of last week's China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on reestablishing diplomatic relations, two senior U.S. officials told me.

Why it matters: Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been tense since the Biden administration assumed office.

  • Those tensions escalated in October when the Saudis led a move to decrease global oil production. The U.S. saw the move as a violation of the understanding it reached with Saudi Arabia ahead of President Biden’s visit to the kingdom a few months earlier.

Driving the news: The Saudi-Iran deal, which establishes a road map for resuming relations within two months, was seen by many as a victory for China and a blow to U.S. policy in the Middle East. But the Biden administration has sought to downplay the agreement and China's influence in the region.

  • "The Saudis agreed to possibly reopen an embassy in Tehran in two months. There's no peace treaty here, but a return to the pre-2016 status quo," a senior U.S. official told me.
  • The Biden administration doesn't see a problem with the Chinese trying to de-escalate the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran as long as it doesn't have to do with military or technological cooperation, the senior U.S. official said.

Behind the scenes: The Saudis, motivated by the hope to end the war in Yemen and stop Houthi attacks against the kingdom, have wanted to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran since the Biden administration assumed office, according to the senior U.S. official.

  • Last week's agreement came after several rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Oman and Iraq. Those talks, however, stalled due to anti-government protests in Iran last year.
  • Then in December, Saudi Arabia informed the White House that the Chinese government during President Xi Jinping's visit to the kingdom expressed confidence that it could get a deal that would constrain Iran's actions in the region, the official said.
  • Throughout the negotiations in Beijing, the Saudis kept the Biden administration, which was skeptical a deal would be reached, informed, according to the official.

State of play: The official said that both the White House and Saudi Arabia are skeptical that Iran will follow through on the deal, "but we welcome de-escalation in the region through diplomacy wherever possible."

  • "The Saudis are not rushing into this, and the agreement is not to reopen their embassies next week. That's contingent upon what happens over the next two months. If missiles start flying from Yemen again, there won't be an embassy," the official added.
  • The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
  • Iranian officials have described the deal with Saudi Arabia as "an earthquake" when it comes to U.S. influence in the Middle East.

The big picture: U.S. officials say that regardless of the deal, there has in recent months been a gradual improvement in the relations between the Biden administration and the Saudi government.

  • They point to the Saudi foreign minister's visit to Kyiv during which he announced an aid package to Ukraine, which the Biden administration pushed for, as well as an agreement on 5G technology and the multibillion-dollar Boeing deal that was announced on Tuesday as signs of that process.
  • “We are in a better spot," a senior U.S. official said. "They’ve done some important things, and we’ve had good communication on some difficult issues from Yemen to 5G/6G technology to security coordination. It’s moving in a better direction."

What to watch: The White House hopes that the Saudi-Iranian agreement and the upcoming holy month of Ramadan will help in getting a breakthrough in the diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen.

  • U.S. special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to discuss ways to broaden the UN-mediated truce that has been in place over the last year.

2. Scoop: Israel OKs export licenses for anti-drone systems for Ukraine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hold a press conference in Kyiv on Aug. 19, 2019. Photo: Sergey/Xinhua via Getty Images

Israel recently approved the export licenses for the possible sale of anti-drone jamming systems that could help Ukraine counter Iranian drones used by Russia during the war, three Israeli and Ukrainian officials said.

Why it matters: It's the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago that Israel has approved defense export licenses for possible weapons sales to Ukraine.

  • Israel has been careful not to give military assistance to Ukraine, fearing such a move could create tension with Russia and harm Israeli security interests in Syria.

Driving the news: After Russia started using Iranian-made attack drones during the war, the Ukrainian government increased its pressure for Israeli military assistance.

  • Ukrainian officials have claimed that providing weapons systems to Ukraine is in Israel's best interest because Iran is able to gain information about how the drones perform and then make improvements.
  • Iran has acknowledged it delivered some drones to Russia before the war started, but denies doing so after the invasion began. Russia denies using Iranian-made drones during the war, despite growing evidence to the contrary.

Behind the scenes: The approval of the export licenses by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen came in mid-February as Israel was conducting a Netanyahu-ordered review of its policy toward the war, the Israeli and Ukrainian officials said. That review has been completed but no new decisions have been made, according to Israeli officials.

  • Cohen notified Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the approval during his trip to Kyiv on Feb. 15.
  • The licenses were approved for two Israeli companies — Elbit and Rafael — that develop anti-drone systems, Israeli and Ukrainian officials said.

A Ukrainian official told me that a delegation from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense visited Israel recently to get a presentation on the anti-drone systems. No deal has been signed yet.

  • The systems Israel proposed that Ukraine buy use electronic warfare to jam and down drones. The systems have a range of around 25 miles and can be positioned near power plants or other critical sites to protect them from drones.
  • The Ukrainian Defense Ministry is interested in the systems, but they are viewed as less critical because Ukraine has been able to intercept the drones between 75–90% of the time, the Ukrainian officials said.
  • "What we really need is a defensive system against ballistic missiles," a Ukrainian official told me.

What they're saying: Israeli officials claim the approval of the export licenses is not a shift in policy because the systems are defensive in nature and do not use any live fire that can kill Russian soldiers.

  • “Israel is assisting Ukraine in the defense and civilian fields. Every request is being reviewed according to the defense export policy to Ukraine. We don’t elaborate on that for national security and foreign policy considerations,” the Ministry of Defense said.

Between the lines: A senior Israeli official told me one of the reasons Israel approved the licenses was to possibly see how the defense systems perform against Iranian drones.

3. UN: "Responsible leaders" can take steps to de-escalate during Ramadan

Tor Wennesland speaks to reporters at the UN in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tor Wennesland of Norway, the UN special envoy for the Middle East peace process, told me this week that Israeli and Palestinian leaders must make strategic decisions to ensure the holy month of Ramadan remains peaceful.

Driving the news: The time around Ramadan, which begins next week, and Passover, which starts April 5, has historically been a sensitive period, particularly in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

  • But U.S., UN and regional officials are especially worried this year due to violence that has significantly worsened in recent months.
  • Senior officials from the U.S., Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are expected to hold another regional security meeting in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh on March 19 ahead of Ramadan, Wennesland said. A senior Israeli official confirmed the meeting.
  • The first such meeting took place last month in the Jordanian city of Aqaba where Palestinian and Israeli officials agreed to take steps to de-escalate the situation, though tensions immediately rose that day and after the talks.

What he's saying: Wennesland acknowledged it is very hard to agree on a strategy for de-escalation given the lack of trust between the parties, but he stressed that if the understandings reached in Aqaba are implemented, it could take things in the right direction.

  • “You can’t say that you don't agree on what is on the paper the moment you leave the room. You need to actually do something to implement it," he said, hinting at statements by senior Israeli ministers who said they are not committed to the Aqaba understandings.
  • Those understandings included temporarily suspending unilateral steps from both sides and increasing security coordination.

Ahead of Ramadan, "responsible leaders can make decisions" to ensure calm, Wennesland said.

  • He recently met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as officials from the Jordanian Waqf authority that administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque to talk about practical steps that can be taken in order to allow people to travel from the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem to pray without conflict.
  • Those steps must focus on implementing security measures, including crowd management in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and economic measures Wennesland said. Palestinians "should be allowed to come to pray without disturbances. End of story."

The big picture: Maintaining calm in the West Bank and Jerusalem during Ramadan will also be key to keeping the situation calm in Gaza, Wennesland said.

  • He is especially worried about the level of violence and the overall negative dynamic in the West Bank.
  • He told me he respects the Israeli need for security and to prevent attacks, but the rising number of Palestinians killed in Israeli raids only escalates the situation.

Wennesland also believes the Israeli government and military aren't paying enough attention to settler violence in the West Bank. "It is a strategic choice to prevent it. I don't know why it is not prevented. I'm asking it in the meeting with Israeli officials and I'm waiting for a very clear answer. Because it's completely unacceptable," he stressed.

In Ramallah, Wennesland said it's time to "reset" the capacity of the Palestinian Authority institutions.

  • "When the Palestinian Authority is getting weaker, the Palestinian security forces are getting weaker. We are at the point where the fragility is massive," he said.
  • Wennesland acknowledged that the challenge Palestinian leaders face is even bigger because the political attention of the international community is focused on other parts of the world. “I understand why the Palestinians feel abandoned," he stressed.
  • But "the Palestinian leadership's responsibility is to establish a strategy for how they get out of the current situation that they can sell to their own people and present to the international community, and it can’t be only a repeat of what was said 15 years ago," he said.

4. Part II: UN envoy's worry about Bibi's judicial overhaul

Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

On Israel, Wennesland said he's closely following the internal discussions about the government judicial overhaul plan and is concerned about the implications of the plan for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The big picture: Human rights and international law experts have warned the weakening of the Israeli Supreme Court will have severe consequences for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

  • The court has been the only institution that Palestinians in the West Bank can go to defend their rights, mainly regarding land disputes with Israeli settlers.

What he's saying: "The legal issues are not only something that is affecting the state of Israel and the character of the state of Israel, it is definitely also having a fallout on the Palestinian side and the dynamics on the ground. That's where I have my focus," he said.

5. Erdoğan faces toughest election yet

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Turkey is heading toward a tight and highly polarized electoral race on May 14 that will define Turkey’s future, Menekse Tokyay writes for Axios from Ankara.

Why it matters: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces the largest-ever opposition grouping in his two-decade-long rule that has been marked by the centralization of power and an increasing trend of authoritarian policies that curbed the political opposition, as well as freedom of speech and media.

  • The election also comes amid growing criticism of the government's post-earthquake mismanagement and rising costs of living.

Driving the news: With elections two months away, new opinion polls from last week showed opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), leading the presidential race and the opposition bloc likely winning a majority in the parliament.

  • Last week, Kılıçdaroğlu visited the earthquake-hit zone and slept in a tent, a move that greatly increased his popularity.

Between the lines: Kılıçdaroğlu, a leader with a less nationalist agenda, recently said he would also soon meet with the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which has not decided yet about whether to nominate a presidential candidate or throw its support behind Kılıçdaroğlu.

  • The HDP, the third-biggest party in the parliament, is not part of the main opposition bloc, but it is still the kingmaker with its potential vote share above 10%.
  • A case to shut down the HDP is pending before Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and party officials will go before top court on April 11.
  • The Supreme Election Council will announce the candidate lists on April 19.

The other side: Erdoğan is doing outreach to Islamist fringe parties like Yeniden Refah party and Huda Par. The latter is known for being close to Iran.

What to watch: The ability of the opposition bloc to remain united will be key to increasing its chances in the eyes of the voters.

  • The capacity of the ruling government to avoid a currency crisis by keeping the economy afloat and giving a sense of stability will affect the election outcome.