Feb 3, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, a dispatch from a contributor in the region, and our "Bibi Barometer" on the latest in Israeli politics. Please tell a friend to sign up.
  • Today's edition is 1,889 words (7 minutes).
1 big thing: Biden team wants to avoid groupthink on Iran

Malley (L) in negotiations with the Iranians in Vienna in 2015. Photo: Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken has asked newly appointed Iran envoy Rob Malley to form a negotiating team made up of diplomats and experts with a range of views on the path forward with Iran, U.S. officials tell me.

Why it matters: Those instructions indicate the Biden administration is attempting to avoid groupthink when drafting its policies on Iran, while also signaling to critics that a diversity of views will be taken into consideration.

Blinken even asked Malley to bring in people who are “more hawkish” on Iran, according to a source close to the administration.

  • Malley is only beginning to form his new team. Once it's in place, he'll start to develop a strategy for re-engagement with Iran.
  • Malley is in touch with his European counterparts as well as officials from Israel and the Gulf countries, the U.S. officials say.
  • Between the lines: Israeli and Gulf officials have told me they're concerned that Malley is too soft on Iran.

What they're saying: "Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told me.

  • "Leading that team as our special envoy for Iran is Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again."

Between the lines: Malley helped negotiate the 2015 deal and has been a prominent advocate of both the U.S. and Iran returning to the original agreement before negotiating a broader deal.

  • He told Axios last month that both sides had incentives to complete that "compliance for compliance" process before Iran's presidential elections in June.

The state of play: The Biden administration and the Iranian government both support that framework in principle.

  • The main divergence has to do with sequencing: The U.S. is offering sanctions relief after Iran returns to compliance, but Iran has insisted the U.S. lift sanctions first.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hinted at a middle path on CNN on Monday, proposing a mechanism to “synchronize or coordinate” steps by both sides.
  • Price reiterated Biden's commitment to return to compliance if Iran does first and then use the 2015 deal as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.
  • But, he cautioned, "we are a long way from that point as Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts and there are many steps in the process that we will need to evaluate. We will coordinate closely with our allies and partners, as well as with Congress," Price said.

What to watch: Iran has continued to take new steps in violation of the deal in recent days, including operating advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its Natanz facility and installing new IR-6 centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear site.

  • Malley told Axios last month that certain steps would increase the pressure on Biden to make a deal, but "there comes a point at which more pressure might mean that the Biden administration will change course as well.”
2. Scoop: Sisi sets condition for Netanyahu visit

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to visit Cairo, but Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has a condition: Netanyahu must make a positive statement on the Palestinian issue, such as recommitting to the two-state solution, Israeli sources tell me.

Why it matters: The Egyptians are concerned that they're on track for a rocky start with the Biden administration. They want to reinvigorate their role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to send a positive sign to the White House and to increase their relevance as a partner for Biden.

Between the lines: "Sisi doesn’t care so much about the Palestinian issue, but he knows Netanyahu is looking for a photo-op for his election campaign and is trying to get a diplomatic achievement for Egypt out of it," an Israeli source familiar with the discussions told me.

Driving the news: The potential visit has been under discussion for several months as the Abraham Accords came together and the political transition began in the U.S.

  • Netanyahu last made an official visit to Egypt a decade ago, when Hosni Mubarak was still in power. Even then the visit was to Sharm el-Sheikh and not Cairo.
  • Since then, Netanyahu has visited Egypt secretly several times.

The visit almost took place about a month ago, but the Egyptians had second thoughts after early elections were called in Israel, two Israeli sources tell me.

  • The trip was postponed, and when talks resumed, the Egyptians made the request for a goodwill gesture on the Palestinian issue in the context of the visit.
  • The Egyptians specifically raised the idea of Netanyahu making a statement of commitment to the two-state solution, the Israeli sources said.
  • Netanyahu has reservations about that proposal during an election campaign in which he's trying to mobilize his right-wing base. The visit is now on hold, but the Israeli sources say efforts are being made to find a compromise.

Behind the scenes: The issue came up again when Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel visited Jerusalem last week for talks with senior Israeli officials.

  • Worth noting: Sources close to Netanyahu denied knowledge of any condition for the visit, and they denied that the matter was raised during Kamel's meeting with the prime minister.

What to watch: Biden criticized Egypt during the election campaign for its human rights violations, and the Egyptians fear their close ties with the Trump administration won't carry forward to Biden.

  • Reemphasizing the Egyptian role as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians could help Cairo build a positive agenda with the new administration — and those efforts are already underway.
3. The view from Amman: Biden’s arrival pushes Jordan toward political reform

Biden with King Abdullah II in Jordan in 2016. Photo: Jordan Pix/Getty Images

After a complicated relationship with the Trump administration, Jordan now has the opportunity to strengthen relations with the U.S. — but it will not come for free, Daoud Kuttab writes from Amman

Why it matters: King Abdullah II, anticipating more emphasis on human rights and democracy from Washington, has now publicly called for political reforms.

“We must revisit laws regulating political life, such as the election, political parties, and local administration laws, and continue political development efforts."
— King Abdullah II to the Petra news agency

Between the lines: Marwan Muasher, Jordan's former deputy prime minister and now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, said those comments were made with Biden in mind.

  • Speaking at a forum in Amman on Monday, Muasher said that while Biden is familiar with Arab issues and is a friend of Jordan, that doesn’t mean he agrees with its policies. “He is going to want to see political reform in Jordan," Muasher stressed.
  • The political reforms being considered in Jordan involve building a more representative parliament that will be less based on tribal considerations and more inclusive.

The big picture: Abdullah enjoys bipartisan support in Washington and has known Biden for decades, dating back to his time as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • He opposed Donald Trump's policies on Israel-Palestine, and he welcomes the Biden administration's plans to reinstate funding for Palestinian refugees and to hospitals in East Jerusalem.
  • Jordanians are also optimistic about the appointment of Bill Burns, an Arabic speaker and former ambassador to Amman, as director of the CIA.

The state of play: The king was the first Arab leader to speak with Biden after his election.

  • Blinken has also called Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi — but has not yet placed calls to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, all of which had close relationships with Trump.
  • Jordan has the longest borders with Israel and Palestine of any country, and it's a strategic regional partner for the U.S. It's also one of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, receiving a guaranteed minimum of $1.25 billion per year.
4. The Bibi Barometer: The pro-Netanyahu campaign to delegitimize the elections

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

A pro-Netanyahu political organization has launched a campaign ahead of the March 23 elections attacking the chair of the Central Elections Committee and hinting he could be involved in “vote theft."

The big picture: The claims resemble those made by Donald Trump and his supporters before and after the U.S. elections.

The organization behind the attacks, Im Tirtzu, is close to Netanyahu and his inner circle and has attacked Netanyahu's political opponents in several election campaigns since it was founded in 2007.

  • Some of Im Tirtzu's founders went on to work for Netanyahu's campaigns, and the group's director, Matan Peleg, is a close associate of several government ministers from Netanyahu's Likud party.
  • The group's communications chief is also the girlfriend of Netanyahu’s son Avner.
  • Much of the group's funding comes from the U.S., with major donors including American Netanyahu backers like televangelist John Hagee and the Falic family, owners of the Duty Free Americas shops.

Driving the news: The social media campaign started last weekend with a Facebook post headlined “This year nobody will steal votes."

  • The campaign has targeted Supreme Court Judge Uzi Fogelman, with ads suggesting he can’t be trusted to keep the election free and fair and prevent voter fraud.
  • The campaign called on Israelis to “trust only themselves” and volunteer on election day to monitor polling stations and the vote count.
  • The campaign is being supported by Netanyahu’s older son, Yair, who shared it on his Telegram channel and Facebook page.

The backstory: The campaign attacking Fogelman is based on a conspiracy theory popular with Netanyahu’s supporters about the Wexner Foundation, of which Fogelman is an alumnus.

  • The foundation, founded by American billionaire Leslie Wexner, sends 10 high achieving Israeli civil servants to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government each year.
  • In recent years, Netanyahu’s supporters have spread a conspiracy theory that the foundation and its alumni are part of a “deep state” apparatus that controls Israel’s legal system, military and intelligence services — in opposition to Netanyahu and the democratic decisions of the people.
  • The theory's backers have seized on Leslie Wexner's ties to Jeffrey Epstein — with Yair Netanyahu even claiming the foundation alumni were "a cult of pedophiles."
  • A third-party review found Epstein “played no meaningful role” at the foundation, and 75 former senior Israeli officials who had taken part in the program sued Netanyahu for libel, seeking $20 million in compensation. The legal process is still ongoing.
5. Prisoner payments complicate resumption of U.S.-Palestinian ties

Biden with Abbas in 2010. Photo: Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has formed a special team to prepare for talks with the Biden administration over controversial payments made by the Palestinian Authority to Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, many of them on terrorism charges.

Why it matters: The prisoner stipends — termed "pay for slay" by the Trump administration — are a primary concern for the Biden administration as it prepares to re-engage with the Palestinians.

  • U.S. and Palestinian officials acknowledge that a solution on the payments issue must be found as the U.S. takes steps like renewing aid and reopening the PLO office in Washington. They're therefore considering combining the issues into one package.

Driving the news: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tasked Shtayyeh with finding such a solution. Shtayyeh has assembled a team of lawyers and experts, and he discussed the issue earlier this week during a call with Hady Amr, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestine.

  • One possibility would be changing the law such that the payment criteria is based on the welfare needs of the prisoner and not on the crime committed.

What they are saying: “We know we have to find a solution for the prisoner payments, but it is an important issue for many Palestinians and any solution must be dignified," a Palestinian official told me.

  • The Palestinian official added that Shtayyeh told Amr in their phone call that U.S. relations with the Palestinians should be bilateral — separate from the state of relations between the Palestinians and Israel.

What to watch: One incentive the Biden administration could offer the Palestinians to make concessions on the payments would be the signing of a long-sought presidential waiver canceling the designation of the PLO as a terror organization.

What’s next: State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday that the administration wants to renew humanitarian aid to the Palestinians quickly because Trump's suspension of aid "didn't achieve political progress or compromises from the Palestinian leadership and only hurt the Palestinian people."