Feb 10, 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 subscribe here if you haven't yet.
  • Today's edition is 2,009 words (7 minutes).
1 big thing: Potential war crimes probe pulls Biden into Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The decision of an International Criminal Court panel to clear the way for a potential war crimes investigation of Israel is forcing the Biden administration to wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much earlier than anticipated.

Why it matters: The ICC ruling infuriated the Israeli government — and it also underscored their reliance on the Biden administration, senior Israeli officials tell me. After the decision was announced on Friday, Israel immediately opened urgent consultations with U.S. officials.

  • On Monday morning, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Jerusalem met Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to discuss the matter.
  • Hours later, Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with Ashkenazi and reassured him the U.S. would help Israel oppose the ICC ruling, Israeli officials tell me.

The big picture: Unlike the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden administration doesn't see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a foreign policy priority and has little expectation of progress.

  • On CNN on Monday, Blinken summed up President Biden's initial approach to the issue as "do no harm" — to ensure that neither side takes unilateral steps that would further obstruct a path toward peace.
  • Biden doesn’t think there's a realistic chance of renewing negotiations between the parties anytime soon and therefore isn’t planning to appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But just three weeks into Biden's term, Israeli officials are warning of a deep crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations if the ICC prosecutor takes up the war crimes investigation, which was initially requested by the Palestinian government.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now desperately needs Biden's backing on an issue of acute importance to Israel.
  • The State Department has already disputed the ICC's decision that it has jurisdiction to investigate the matter.
  • The Israeli government is now hoping the Biden administration will pressure the court’s member states and the prosecutor not to pursue the probe.

What to watch: That reliance could give the U.S. leverage when it seeks to deter the Israeli government from taking provocative steps like further settlement building, or it could gain Israeli approval for the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

  • But the ICC ruling could also complicate the Biden administration's efforts to renew ties with the Palestinians — in particular, the plan to reopen the PLO office in Washington, which the Trump administration closed in 2018.
  • An existing U.S. law requires the secretary of state to certify to Congress that the Palestinian Authority is not pursuing action against Israel in the ICC in order for the PLO to be permitted to have an office in Washington.

The state of play: Palestinian leaders have welcomed the ICC ruling and called for an investigation as soon as possible. It's unclear whether the Biden administration has had any talks with Palestinian officials on the issue.

2. Scoop: "Munich Group” makes new Israel-Palestine proposals

Egyptian President Sisi (L) with French President Macron. Egypt and France are both members of the Munich Group. Photo: Francois Mori/AFP via Getty

A group of Arab and European countries nicknamed “The Munich Group” is lobbying Israeli and Palestinian leaders to commit to a package of confidence-building measures, Israeli and European diplomats tell me.

Why it matters: The initiative from France, Germany, Egypt and Jordan is the only active effort to create some movement in the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

  • They're hoping to improve the atmosphere between the Israelis and Palestinians as the Biden administration reviews its policy on the issue.
  • But European diplomats say both sides are hesitant to take any steps without the participation of the Biden administration.

Flashback: The initiative began last February when the four countries' foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in an attempt to start a dialogue with the Palestinians after the Trump peace plan was presented.

  • The countries later convened to coordinate a response to Israel's annexation plan, which was taken off the table last fall.
  • When the group met in Cairo a month ago, they wanted the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers to join them, but COVID-19 restrictions and political sensitivities in Israel made that impossible.

Driving the news: Last week, the ambassadors of the four countries met with the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, and presented him with possible steps Israel could take.

  • They included providing more vaccines to Palestinian medical teams, unfreezing the bank accounts of Palestinian prisoners and transferring the dead bodies of suspected Palestinian terrorists, which are withheld by Israeli security forces.
  • The most substantial request was a freeze on all new settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That's always a politically charged issue, but particularly so during an Israeli election campaign.

A similar meeting was held in Ramallah between diplomats from the four countries and Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki.

  • They presented him with steps the Palestinians could take, such as enhancing coordination with Israel on COVID-19, reconvening a joint civilian committee that deals with issues in the West Bank and Gaza, and reforming the system of payments the Palestinian Authority makes to prisoners in Israeli prisons, European diplomats say.

What's next: The foreign ministers of the four countries proposed that the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers meet them separately in Paris in early March to discuss the proposals.

  • The Israelis rejected most of the proposed steps out of hand. Ushpiz told the ambassadors he was surprised that a forum aimed at reassuring the Palestinians turned into a forum to demand steps from Israel.
  • “When I see this evolution, I have to rethink if we are even interested in engaging with this initiative," Ushpiz told the ambassadors, according to European diplomats.
  • He also stressed that the initiative can’t exclude the Biden administration. The ambassadors replied that the initiative is intended to help the new U.S. administration.
  • According to the European diplomats, al-Malki said he was prepared to attend the meeting in Paris and consider the proposal, while stressing the need to coordinate the initiative with the Biden administration.
3. The view from Ankara: Erdoğan cracks down on student protests

Solidarity protests in Ankara. Photo: Tunahan Turhan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The appointment of a political figure with links to Turkey's ruling party as the rector of a prominent Istanbul university has sparked protests and raised concerns about deepening political intervention in higher education, writes journalist Menekse Tokyay.

The big picture: Turkey ranks 135th of 144 countries on the Academic Freedom Index, and in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given the authority to appoint university staff by decree. That was one of numerous steps taken to strengthen his power after a failed coup.

  • Erdoğan used that power last month to appoint Melih Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi University, known as Turkey’s Harvard.
  • Founded in 1863 as Robert College, the prestigious public university was the first American higher education institution overseas.

Driving the news: The appointment sparked peaceful protests from students and faculty members who called for Bulu’s resignation and for the university to be permitted to elect its own rector.

  • The Turkish police cracked down. More than 600 students have been detained since Feb. 1 and at least 10 are still under arrest.
  • In recent days, peaceful protests spread throughout the country in solidarity. 

The state of play: While the protests continue, Bulu is trying to establish his control over the administration of the university by appointing two vice rectors. 

  • In a surprise move on Friday, Erdoğan bypassed the Higher Education Board to open two new faculties at the university — law and communications.
  • Critics refer to that as a “Trojan horse” move that will allow Erdoğan to appoint additional academic staff. The existing staff had refused to collaborate with Bulu.

What they're saying: The Turkish government claims the protesters are “extremists” who are violating a ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19. Erdoğan and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu both dubbed them “terrorists."

  • Soylu even tweeted that the demonstrators were “LGBT perverts." His tweet was quickly censored by Twitter.
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned the anti-LGBT comments by Turkish officials, expressed concern about the broader response to the protests, and said the Biden administration would not remain silent on issues pertaining to fundamental democratic freedoms.
  • During a phone call last week with Erdoğan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration would show a “broad commitment to supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law” in Turkey, according to the White House readout.

What’s next: Decisions on the potential prosecution of the detained students will be given within two months, according to the legal procedures. The protests are expected to continue, with academics reading a declaration each day with their backs turned to the rectoral building.

4. Bibi Barometer: Delaying and denouncing the corruption hearings

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

Netanyahu and his allies are publicly pressuring the judges in his corruption trial to postpone the presentation of evidence and witnesses until after Israel's elections on March 23.

What he's saying: “Everybody knows the cases against me are rigged," Netanyahu claimed on Monday. "This is why I don’t think the hearing of witnesses in my trial should begin before the elections because even if it is not the intention, it would look like a flagrant interference in the elections."

Between the lines: The presentation of evidence against Netanyahu in the lead-up to the trial would be a gift to his opponents, and put him in a difficult position.

  • It's in Netanyahu's legal interest to sit in the courtroom and look witnesses in the eyes as they testify against him, but it's in his political interest to stay out of court in order to show that he's focusing on affairs of state.
  • Netanyahu’s political opponents contend that he brought down the government and forced the election because of his legal situation — proof he can’t differentiate between the national interest and his legal troubles.
  • Netanyahu hopes that if he wins the elections, the right-wing bloc will vote to give him immunity from the charges.

Driving the news: In the court session on Monday in which Netanyahu pleaded not guilty, his lawyers asked that the testimony phase be postponed for another three to four months. They cited procedural reasons and didn’t mention the elections.

  • But several hours after Netanyahu left the courtroom, he denounced the charges against him and argued for a postponement until after the elections. In a scene that looked like it was taken from the Trump White House during impeachment, he did so while standing next to the visiting Greek prime minister.
  • After his brief court appearance, Netanyahu's press team did its best to signal business as usual, issuing statements and releasing photos of the prime minister in meetings and briefings on COVID-19.
  • Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s campaign was instructing all government ministers and MPs from his Likud party to publicly call for a postponement.

What’s next: The judges are expected to rule in the coming days on the dates of the hearings, which are expected to take place three days a week and last several hours.

  • The judges noted on Monday that the trial had already been postponed several times due to COVID-19 restrictions. Nevertheless, another postponement until after the elections is likely.
5. Saudi Arabia seeks to ease tensions with Biden

Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan met in Riyadh on Wednesday with the new U.S. envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking.

Why it matters: The Saudi government is sending signals that it's ready to cooperate on Yemen and make improvements on human rights in an effort to avoid a crisis with Biden.

  • On the campaign trail, Biden accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, stressed that he wouldn't sell weapons to the Saudis, and promised to "make them the pariah that they are." 
  • Now in office, Biden has frozen an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, announced the halt of U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, and rolled back the Trump administration's designation of Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terror group.

The other side: The Saudis haven't criticized Biden's moves publicly, and they're trying to navigate the new reality through private talks with the administration.

  • Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince's brother and confidant, seized on the one positive line in Biden's recent foreign policy speech, in which he said the U.S. would help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
  • Meanwhile, Farhan welcomed Lenderking's appointment despite Biden's shift on Yemen. On Wednesday, they discussed ways to find a political solution to the crisis, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.

The most interesting step from the crown prince was the announcement on Monday of major legal and judicial reforms that will establish civil law in the country for the first time, in addition to Islamic law.

  • “The absence of applicable legislation has led to discrepancies in decisions and a lack of clarity in the principles governing facts and practices. … This was painful for many individuals and families, especially women, permitting some to evade their responsibilities," the crown prince said.
  • The timing of the announcement looks like a signal to the Biden administration.

Worth noting: Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke to Farhan on Friday, after he'd already spoken to several other Arab foreign ministers. In the call, he stressed the need for the Saudis to take steps on human rights and end the war in Yemen.