April 19, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,028 words, 7½ minutes) starts with the role Israel is playing as the international community attempts to end the fighting in Sudan.
  • It also takes you inside the call of the top Israeli and U.S. defense officials after the Pentagon leaks and reveals one aspect of Blinken's trip to Niger that hasn't been publicly released.

đź“… Situational awareness: Axios from Tel Aviv will be off next week as Israel marks Memorial Day. I'll be back in your inbox on May 3.

1 big thing: Israel fears Sudan unrest could end prospects of peace deal

Smoke rises during clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Ahmed Satti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israel is using its relationships with the generals leading the Sudanese military and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group to urge them to immediately end the fighting that has left more than 270 people dead, three Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: Israel's normalization process with Sudan in the last three years and the relationships it built with both Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, put it in a unique position to try to influence the two warring generals.

  • Israel also has motivation. Israeli officials told me they are highly concerned that the current fighting will devastate the country, prevent the formation of a civilian government, and end any prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and Sudan.

Catch up quick: Sudan was part of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries in 2020.

  • But the military takeover of Sudan a year later led to the suspension of U.S. aid and the freezing of the normalization process between Israel and Sudan.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli Foreign Ministry in recent years has been engaging with al-Burhan on the normalization process, and the Mossad intelligence agency has been engaging with Hemedti on security and counterterrorism issues, Israeli officials said.

  • Before the fighting began, Israeli officials said they were closely following the talks in Sudan about the framework agreement that was supposed to lead to the appointment of a civilian-led government.
  • When Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Khartoum in February, he urged al-Burhan to move forward with giving power back to a civilian government and made it clear that it will be difficult to reach a peace treaty without it.

A senior Israeli official said that last week the Israeli government was sure that an agreement on appointing a civilian government was coming in days, if not hours, and was frustrated when the deal fell apart and the fighting began over the weekend.

  • Israeli officials said that the White House and State Department on Sunday urged Israel to help in pressing the two warring generals to agree to a cease-fire. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials spoke to al-Burhan’s side, while officials from Mossad spoke to the Hemedti side and urged both to de-escalate.

What they are saying: "We are following with concern the events in Sudan. Israel wants stability and security for Sudan," an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

  • "Israel calls on all parties to refrain from violence and to return to the path of internal reconciliation, in order to conclude the process of governmental transition with a large consensus."

The big picture: Israel is just one of several countries that have interests in Sudan and have been involved in the political situation in the northeast African country, including in the current crisis.

  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are deeply involved in Sudan.
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE are part of the “Quad for Sudan” group, which includes the U.S. and U.K.
  • Other countries and international organizations, including Norway, the UN and the African Union are also involved in the situation in Sudan.

What to watch: The Israeli official decision was not to take sides in the crisis and not get involved in any mediation efforts other than urging a cease-fire, the three Israeli officials said.

  • But the officials added that they think the best way to stop the fighting is for the African Union and several of Sudan’s neighbors to urgently send a delegation to Khartoum and start diplomatic talks and give guarantees to both sides that will convince them to stop fighting.

2. Scoop: Austin called Gallant to reassure Israel after Pentagon leak

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant greets U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 9. Photo: Handout/Israel's Ministry of Defense/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin privately tried to reassure his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant that the Biden administration is taking steps to prevent future leaks of classified information after a trove of Pentagon documents appeared online this month, two Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: The leak of top secret Defense Department documents, which also included sensitive details from U.S.-Israeli consultations, could have major implications for the vast intelligence sharing between Israel and the U.S.

  • The phone call between Austin and Gallant, which took place on a secure line last Thursday, was not disclosed by the Pentagon or the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Behind the scenes: The call took place after messages of reassurance were passed between the countries on lower levels.

  • Israeli officials said they mostly listened to the explanations from their American counterparts and expressed concern about the leak itself.

Driving the news: White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing with reporters on Monday that the White House directed senior leaders across the administration to reach out directly to U.S. allies and partners regarding the leaks.

  • Kirby said the administration wanted to "reassure [allies] about our commitment to safeguarding intelligence to answer to the best of our ability any questions that they might have and to express our continued commitment to all our security partnerships," Kirby said.
  • He stressed that during these calls, leaders of U.S. allies and partners "have appreciated the seriousness with which we're taking this issue and our commitment to keeping them informed."

What they're saying: Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Phil Ventura confirmed that the call between Gallant and Austin took place and the two officials spoke about the leak.

  • He added that the two defense leaders also discussed the security situation in Israel. “The Defense Department’s support for Israel’s security against all threats remains ironclad," Ventura told me.
  • A spokesperson for Gallant said he was not going to comment on private conversations between the Israeli defense minister and his U.S. counterpart.

3. Scoop: U.S. urges Niger to resume relations with Israel

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken meets with Niger President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey, Niger, on March 16. Photo: Presidency of Niger/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken during his recent visit to Niger urged the country's president to move toward normalizing relations with Israel, two U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: Blinken and President Mohamed Bazoum's discussion on Israel, which was not previously disclosed, is another sign that the Biden administration is working behind the scenes to include more Arab and Muslim-majority countries in the Abraham Accords.

Driving the news: Blinken's trip to Niger in mid-March made him the first U.S. secretary of state to ever visit the West African Muslim-majority country, which is emerging as a key U.S. security partner in the Sahel.

Behind the scenes: Two weeks after his visit to Niger, Blinken spoke on the phone with his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen and briefed him on his talks, which also included Niger Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou, the Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • Israeli officials said Cohen proposed inviting Niger to participate in the Negev Forum, which includes the U.S., Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.
  • Israeli officials said that the leadership in Niger was willing to move forward with warming ties with Israel and even reestablishing diplomatic relations, but they want to get some kind of deliverables from the Biden administration.
  • The Niger Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
  • The State Department declined to comment.

Flashback: Israel had diplomatic relations with Niger in the 1960s but they broke down in 1973. The two countries renewed ties in 1996 after the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but Niger cut ties again in 2002 during the second intifada.

  • In recent years, there have been informal relations between the countries, which have taken place mostly behind the scenes, Israeli officials said.
  • Since 2018, Israel has strengthened its ties in Africa, mainly in the Sahel. Israel reestablished ties with Chad, started a normalization process with Sudan, and held secret talks on normalizing relations with Somalia.

4. Scoop: Israeli military to test civilian early warning system in Kyiv

Rescuers examine a destroyed apartment building after a rocket attack by Russia in Kyiv on Dec. 31, 2022. Photo: Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Israeli military is planning to test its civilian early warning system in Kyiv next month with the aim of making it operational by the summer, two Ukrainian and Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: The civilian early warning system, which will connect to the Ukrainian military radar and air defense network, can send faster and more specific alerts to Ukrainian civilians in the areas that are targeted.

Catch up quick: Then-Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in October 2022 said Israel is willing to assist Ukraine with a civilian early warning system.

  • Israel uses the same system itself. Once a threat is identified it sends a “Red Alert” message to mobile phones and activates air raid sirens.
  • Because the system is connected to the air defense and radar system, it can calculate where a rocket is going to hit and activate alerts only in this specific area. This gives civilians in the targeted areas more time to take cover while allowing civilians in other areas to continue their daily lives undisturbed.

Behind the scenes: In recent months, Israeli officers from the Home Front Command met several times in Poland with Ukrainian military officers and officials from Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior, Israeli and Ukrainian officials told me.

  • During the meetings, the Israelis presented the system and discussed how to reconfigure the software so that it would be compatible with Ukraine's needs, the officials said.
  • The big difference in the size of Ukraine and Israel and because different rockets and missiles are used by Russia to target Ukrainian cities means that the system will need adjustments, the officials concluded.

What to watch: Israeli and Ukrainian officials said the decision was to start a “pilot” project in Kyiv and conduct a first test of the system in May.

  • If successful, the system will be operated in several other cities in Ukraine that are home to more than 1 million people.

The big picture: The current Israeli government, like the previous one, is not willing to supply Ukraine with lethal military assistance.

  • The Israeli government is concerned that Russia could retaliate to any supply of lethal aid to Ukraine by limiting the Israeli air force's freedom of operation against Iranian targets in Syria.

5. Hamas and Abbas make separate trips to Saudi Arabia

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an official visit in Jeddah on April 18. Photo: Handout/Palestinian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A delegation of senior Hamas officials is visiting Saudi Arabia for a Muslim pilgrimage and meetings with Saudi officials, the organization announced this week.

Why it matters: It's the first time senior Hamas leaders have visited Saudi Arabia since 2015. The visit appears to be part of a rapprochement effort with the kingdom. It also comes as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes his own trip to Saudi Arabia.

  • In recent years, the Saudis have cracked down on Hamas operations in Saudi Arabia and arrested dozens of its operatives.

Driving the news: The Hamas delegation is headed by Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, and Khalid Mashaal, the head of Hamas’ international branch.

  • The official reason for the visit was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Videos of Hamas leaders visiting the holy sites circulated on social media on Tuesday.
  • The delegation is expected to meet Saudi officials and discuss the ties with Saudi Arabia and the issue of Hamas operatives that are detained in the kingdom, according to reports on websites close to Hamas.
  • The Saudi government released at least one Hamas official from prison ahead of the visit.

The other side: On the same day the Hamas delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia, Abbas landed in Jeddah for an official visit.

  • Abbas on Tuesday night met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and discussed the situation in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
  • A Palestinian official said the trip was planned long in advance and is focused on improving the bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and discussing Saudi aid to the Palestinians.

What to watch: The two visits raised expectations that the Saudis may again try to mediate a Palestinian reconciliation agreement.

  • Abbas and Haniyeh in 2007 signed an agreement in Mecca to form a unity government, but the deal broke down several months later when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. The Saudis blame Hamas for the failure of the agreement.

The big picture: The two visits are part of a broader diplomatic push by MBS to normalize Saudi relations with key players in the region.

  • Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on Tuesday visited Damascus and met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was the first such visit in more than a decade.
  • The Saudis are hoping to bring Syria back into the Arab League during the Arab summit next month, but several Arab countries still oppose it.

Big thanks to Sheryl Miller for copy editing this newsletter.

Editor's note: Item 1 of this newsletter has been corrected to reflect that Sudan is in northeastern Africa (not West Africa).