Axios from Tel Aviv
December 15, 2021
Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.
- Much of today’s newsletter (1,705 words, 6 ½ minutes) is drawn from my new book. It’s been a crazy few days since it was released in Hebrew in Israel (a certain expletive contributed to that).
- The launch of the new “How it Happened” podcast recorded by Jonathan Swan and myself also contributed to the excitement. Subscribe to listen.
- Thanks to everyone who has expressed interest in both. I am working on an English language version of the book and will update you ASAP.
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1 big thing: Trump felt used by Netanyahu on Soleimani strike
The assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 seemed like the height of U.S.-Israel cooperation, but it actually became a major point of tension between the allies.
Behind the scenes: Donald Trump expected Israel to play a more active role in the attack, and he griped that then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier,” according to a former senior Trump administration official. Trump himself told me, “Israel did not do the right thing."
- Trump made that remark in an interview last July for my book “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East."
- “I can't talk about this story. But I was very disappointed in Israel having to do with that event. ... People will be hearing about that at the right time," Trump said.
Between the lines: It's unclear if Trump's anger is entirely justified. A senior Israeli defense official told me that Israel proposed a more active role for Israeli forces but the U.S. insisted on being the ones to execute the strike.
- Israel also provided the U.S. with key intelligence support, including tracking Soleimani's cellphone, Yahoo News reported.
- The former senior U.S. official said Trump's anger wasn't totally warranted, but that he put the episode into the same box he had put his feelings for NATO — of allies wanting the U.S. to do their fighting for them.
Warranted or not, the episode stuck with Trump during his last year in office.
- Netanyahu tried to pull Trump aside to make amends when he visited the White House in September 2020 for the signing of the Abraham Accords, but Trump wasn't convinced and continued to believe Netanyahu had used him, a former White House official told me.
Flashback: On the night of Jan. 3, 2020, Soleimani — the commander of Iran's regional network of proxies and international intelligence and terror operations — arrived in Baghdad.
- A few minutes after his car left the airport, it was struck by a missile fired by a U.S. drone. He was killed on the spot, along with the commander of an Iraqi militia.
- The Trump administration's contention that Soleimani had posed an "imminent threat" was intensely debated at the time. Trump claimed in our interview that the Iranian general was in Iraq to meet with militia commanders and plan attacks against U.S. targets.
- “They were not meeting to discuss child care, OK? They had a lot of very bad intentions. And we knew that. So I felt very strongly that our country really had little choice," Trump said.
Worth noting: A former senior Israeli official said other senior members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Pence, had expressed appreciation for the Israeli role in the Soleimani killing and its aftermath.
2. The fallout from Trump's "F**k you" to Netanyahu
Netanyahu hasn’t tried reaching out to Trump in the aftermath of the interview in which Trump said of Netanyahu, "f**k him," Netanyahu’s aides tell me.
Why it matters: Trump's remarks, which came during my face-to-face interview with him in April and were published by Axios on Friday, quickly turned into a political and media firestorm in Israel that is only just subsiding. Many in Israel saw them as damaging to Netanyahu because it broke the myth that he and Trump were close allies.
- Now opposition leader, Netanyahu is waging a continuous campaign to win back the prime minister's office despite being on trial for corruption. His "bromance" with Trump had been one of his political calling cards.
- But Trump fumed during the interview about a video Netanyahu had posted congratulating Joe Biden on his election victory. "I haven’t spoken to him since," Trump said. "F**k him."
Driving the news: Netanyahu has kept silent on the issue other than a short statement last Friday in which he thanked Trump for his support to Israel but defended his decision to congratulate the incoming president.
- One of Netanyahu's aides told me he “doesn’t want to touch this affair at the moment."
- The aide said Netanyahu was sorry to hear Trump's remarks but still respects the former president and doesn't feel that there is bad blood on his side.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu's supporters and political allies have taken to social media and TV studios to defend Netanyahu, saying he had no choice but to congratulate Biden and had put the interests of the country over his own political interests.
- Netanyahu's supporters have also latched on to Trump's remark that Netanyahu "never wanted peace" with the Palestinians to stress that Netanyahu is the true leader of the Israeli right who was willing to stand up even to Trump in opposing the two-state solution.
3. Excerpt: Kushner kicked Israeli ambassador out of his office
The following story is adapted from "Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East."
The unveiling of Trump's Middle East peace plan — and Netanyahu's efforts to parlay the plan into unilateral annexations in the occupied West Bank — sparked weeks of tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments.
- They culminated in a heated meeting that February in which Jared Kushner ejected Israel's ambassador to Washington from his office, according to two former senior White House officials.
Flashback: Trump presented his plan in a White House ceremony on Jan. 28, 2020. The White House hoped to start mobilizing international support in order to push the plan ahead in a possible second Trump term.
- The plan was widely viewed as highly favorable to Israel, but it was politically sensitive for Netanyahu with elections looming in March. Still, he couldn't outright say no to Trump.
- Instead, Netanyahu promised during the ceremony to immediately annex the parts of the West Bank that the plan envisioned as part of Israel — an explosive proposal that would violate international law, but potentially provide Netanyahu an electoral landslide.
- Kushner and the White House ultimately forced Netanyahu to back down and walk back his promise just hours later, in a major embarrassment for the prime minister.
Behind the scenes: The following weeks were the lowest point in relations between Trump and Netanyahu up to that point. Their advisers were hardly speaking, two former White House officials say.
- In late February, Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer went to see Kushner at the White House and the frustrations from Jan. 28 were aired for the first time, the former White House officials say.
- Dermer claimed the embarrassment Netanyahu had suffered would harm him in the elections.
- Dermer said Netanyahu had made difficult promises in front of the whole world during an election campaign — and had done so with the understanding that the U.S. would support him on annexation.
Kushner pushed back, saying the Trump administration had done more for Israel than any previous administration.
- “Don’t get confused thinking that what happened in the last three years was because of you. We did all that because we wanted to," Kushner said.
- The Israeli ambassador fired back, saying Netanyahu didn't know if he could ever trust the Trump administration again.
- "Get out," Kushner shouted, calling Dermer's remark "disgusting."
Worth noting: A former White House official told me Kushner liked Dermer and saw him as someone who kept Netanyahu's emotions in check, but on that day, “Dermer said things he shouldn’t have and Jared wasn’t in the mood to take it."
4. Bennett's historic trip to the UAE
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s historic visit to Abu Dhabi this week was a signal from both sides that the relationship is continuing to develop one year after the Abraham Accords, regardless of the change in government in Israel.
Why it matters: It was the first public visit by an Israeli prime minister to the United Arab Emirates. Both sides wanted to stress the personal connection between Bennett and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), who met for five hours, mostly one-on-one, at MBZ's palace.
- A day earlier, Bennett was received with full honors at the airport by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.
- Bennett invited MBZ to visit Israel and he accepted the invitation, Israeli officials say
Between the lines: The visit also came amid a sensitive dialogue between the UAE and Iran in an attempt to de-escalate regional tensions.
- Emirati national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan attended the meeting with Bennett after returning last week from a rare visit to Tehran.
- While Iran was discussed, both sides tried to keep the focus on the deepening bilateral relationship.
- The Iranian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, slammed the UAE for allowing the leader of a “regime that undermines regional security” to visit and warned against allowing Israel to strengthen its presence in the Gulf.
Worth noting: The visit took place at a time when the UAE is threatening to cancel its F-35 deal with the U.S. over the long delays. According to the WSJ, the U.S. is concerned about safeguarding the advanced technology from Chinese spying.
5. Iran agrees to renewed inspections as nuclear talks stall
Iran has agreed to allow UN inspectors to reinstall cameras at the Karaj centrifuge facility amid the ongoing impasse at the nuclear talks in Vienna.
Why it matters: The Iranian decision came after long and difficult negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and threats by the U.S. and the E3 — France, Germany and the U.K. — to censure Iran at an IAEA board meeting later this month for interfering with inspections.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said the agreement would address the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and allow for renewed cooperation with the IAEA.
- The agreement is likely to put any plans to censor Iran on hold.
Flashback: An attack in July badly damaged the Karaj centrifuge assembly facility, including the UN inspectors’ cameras.
- The Iranians blamed Israel for the attack and used it to justify limiting the IAEA's access to the Karaj site and other nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, there has been no real progress in the ongoing talks in Vienna.
- European negotiators have accused the Iranians of dragging their feet, to the extent that a return to the 2015 nuclear deal may be impossible.
- Amir-Abdollahian told Iranian media on Wednesday he is optimistic that progress can be made during this round of talks if the U.S. and E3 act realistically.
- In what seemed to be a message to the Iranian delegation, the Russian lead negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted a photo of a trilateral meeting with the Chinese and U.S. negotiating teams. U.S. officials believe Chinese and Russian pressure could get Iran to move.