Dec 2, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • There are two primary topics for today's newsletter: the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the coming elections in Israel (1,839 words, 7 minutes).
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1 big thing: Iran's nuclear dilemma

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The world is waiting to see whether Iran will strike back at Israel or the U.S. over the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran's military nuclear program.

Why it matters: Senior Iranian officials have stressed that Iran will take revenge against the perpetrators while continuing Fakhrizadeh’s legacy — the nuclear program. The key question is whether Iran will accelerate that work now or wait to see what President-elect Biden puts on the table.

The backstory: Iran has waited out two years of "maximum pressure" under President Trump, breaching the enrichment limits of the 2015 nuclear deal after Trump withdrew, but stopping short of more drastic steps.

  • Biden has long said that if Iran returns to compliance, he'll loosen sanctions in order to bring the U.S. back into the deal.

State of play: Hardliners in Tehran have long been critical of President Hassan Rouhani's "strategic patience" policy, and their voices have grown louder in the wake of Fakhrizadeh's assassination.

  • The Iranian parliament passed a nonbinding resolution on Tuesday calling on the government to raise uranium enrichment levels to 20%, start rebuilding the heavy water reactor in Arak, and limit the access of UN inspectors to Iran's nuclear sites.

The other side: The more pragmatic camp, led by Rouhani, argues that such steps on the nuclear program would play into the hands of the Trump administration and Israel.

  • They stress the need to prioritize the removal of U.S. sanctions once Biden assumes office — a goal they think is at hand.
  • The decision is ultimately in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His public comments thus far have not indicated that he's siding with those arguing for an imminent acceleration on the nuclear front.

The latest: Biden and his transition team have been silent on Fakhrizadeh's assassination, and several Biden aides refused to comment on the matter for this story.

Flashback: The two-tiered debate over Iran's response echoes the aftermath of the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, by the U.S.

  • Iran took tactical revenge by launching missiles at American bases in Iraq. But Iran's strategic response was to press the Iraqi government to call on the U.S. to pull its troops out of the country.

What to watch: Diplomats from world powers who are still part of the nuclear deal (Russia, China, France, Germany, the U.K.) will meet Iranian officials in Vienna on Dec. 16 to discuss ways to preserve the deal, get Iran back to full compliance and prepare for the new U.S. administration.

2. The Bibi barometer: Here come the elections

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

After six months of a dysfunctional power-sharing government, Israel is headed for its fourth elections in less than two years, most likely at the end of March.

Driving the news: The Knesset voted 61-54 today to approve the preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the parliament and call new elections. Benny Gantz's Blue and White party supported the bill while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and the rest of the coalition voted against it.

  • This is a first step toward early elections, but the bill needs to pass three more votes. That leaves two or three weeks to find a solution to the coalition crisis, but the chances of that happening are very low.

The big picture: The government's collapse was precipitated by Netanyahu's refusal to pass a 2021 budget, which would have locked in the rotation agreement under which Gantz was to become prime minister next November.

  • Gantz accused Netanyahu last night of being a "serial promise-breaker" who had "led on the Israeli people."
  • Netanyahu thinks new elections will help him deal with his corruption trial, which is due to resume in February.
  • According to polls, most Israelis consider Netanyahu responsible for the early elections. 

The state of play: Despite his weakening poll numbers, Netanyahu starts the election campaign with no significant opponent and with the opposition fractured.

  • The latest polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc leading with at least 65 seats — a solid majority that could allow Netanyahu to take steps to further postpone his trial or cancel it altogether through legislation.

What to watch: Netanyahu’s main political rival, Naftali Bennett, comes from the right.

  • Polls project Bennet's party to finish second to Likud with around 22 seats, pulling in votes from disappointed Blue and White and Likud supporters who approve of Bennett’s policies on countering COVID-19 and fixing the economy.
  • Netanyahu will focus on winning back some of those voters and shrinking Bennett's vote share.
  • The center-left is divided, and opposition leader Yair Lapid isn’t perceived as a credible alternative to Netanyahu. The biggest challenge for the opposition will be finding a way to run together under one list in order to mobilize their disillusioned voters.

The election campaign is likely to take place during a third wave of COVID-19 and possibly even a third lockdown. That could have huge consequences for turnout and on voters who aren't committed to one party.

3. Will Netanyahu's attempt to divide the Arab List succeed?

Mansour Abbas (L) with other Joint List leaders. Photo: Menhame Kahana/AFP via Getty

A call by a prominent Arab-Israeli politician for possible political cooperation with Netanyahu threatens to divide the Arab Joint List, Israel’s third-largest political bloc, Afif Abu Much, a columnist for Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Netanyahu is trying to divide the Joint List in order to decrease its political power and prevent it from tipping the center left into an electoral majority.

Flashback: Israel's Arab minority had its highest turnout in history during the previous election amid pushback against Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaigns, earning the Joint List 15 seats in the Knesset.

Driving the news: In recent months, Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Joint List's Islamist faction — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — opened a backchannel to Netanyahu.

  • When their communications were exposed, Abbas stressed that he didn't want to be “in the pocket” of the center left, which was reluctant to rely on the support of the Joint List to form a government after the last elections.
  • Abbas wants the Joint List to focus on socioeconomic issues that concern its voters, place less emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ultimately join a coalition government to get concrete results.

What he's saying: Abbas said he had no problem cooperating with Netanyahu.

“He is using me, but I am also using him."
— Mansour Abbas on Netanyahu

The state of play: Abbas’ move dramatically raised his public profile, turning him from an anonymous Arab politician to a frequent guest in the television studios.

  • Abbas received a lot of criticism, but he also changed the political discourse in Israel.
  • His move created huge tensions inside the Arab Joint List, leading to attacks against Abbas and calls to divide the List ahead of the next elections.

The big picture: The vast majority of Arab voters see Netanyahu in a very negative light as a result of his incitement against the Arab minority and its representatives in the Knesset, whom he called “terror supporters."

Yes, but: Netanyahu plays a dual game. While publicly attacking the Arab Joint List to rally his base and attack the center left, in private he has always negotiated ad hoc political deals with Arab politicians to ensure his political survival.

What’s next: It is too soon to say if the Arab Joint List is going to divide or not. All of the List’s members remember that when they entered the March 2019 elections divided, the voters punished them with very low turnout. Polls already project the List to lose three or four seats.

4. Israel fears tourists in UAE could be Iranian targets

Arriving in Dubai. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli officials are concerned that Israelis visiting Dubai could become the targets of Iranian retaliation over the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Why it matters: The UAE is one of the only destinations open to Israeli travelers at the moment due to COVID-19 restrictions. Israeli officials expect thousands of Israelis to visit Dubai during the Hanukkah holiday, less than two weeks from now.

The state of play: The Iranian government holds Israel responsible for the assassination. Several senior Iranian military and civilian officials have threatened revenge “in the right time."

  • The Israeli Security Cabinet was briefed on Sunday that it was unclear when and how the Iranians would retaliate, but Israeli institutions and tourists could be under threat.
  • Fearing Iranian retaliation, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a cable to all Israeli missions abroad ordering them to raise their levels of vigilance to the maximum.
  • Israeli diplomats were ordered to report any unusual incidents around embassies, consulates, the houses of diplomatic staff, and Israeli or Jewish community centers.

Driving the news: Israeli officials told me the UAE and Bahrain — which are currently opening to Israeli tourists — are under high threat levels due to their close proximity to Iran, and to Iranian intelligence activity in those countries.

  • On Tuesday, the first commercial flight to Dubai departed from Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv with around 200 Israeli tourists. Several dozen more
    flights are expected in the coming weeks. Israeli airliners have been targeted by terror attacks many times in the past.
  • Hundreds of Israeli government officials and businesspeople are expected to arrive in Dubai next week for a tech conference that is still scheduled to take place.

The UAE condemned the Fakhrizadeh assassination and warned against further escalation.

  • The Emiratis are concerned that they could be the targets of Iranian retaliation, like the attacks on oil tankers earlier this year.

What’s next: Netanyahu wanted to visit the UAE and Bahrain this week but his trip was postponed for scheduling reasons several days before the Fakhrizadeh killing. It's now supposed to take place later this month.

  • Israeli and Emirati officials say it's now unclear if the visit will take place, both for security reasons and due to political sensitivities.
5. Israel's embassy in Manama comes out into the open

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Israel plans to open an official embassy in Bahrain by the end of December, formalizing 25 years of secret diplomatic contacts, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel already had a diplomatic mission in Manama for the last 11 years, run out of a front company that was listed as a commercial consulting firm. Now, there will be an Israeli flag and a sign on the door.

The state of play: The new embassy will not be in the same location as the secret diplomatic mission, which will shut down.

  • In order to open the new embassy as quickly as possible, it will be located in temporary offices.

Driving the news: The two Israeli diplomats who will staff the embassy arrived in Manama last week with their Israeli diplomatic passports.

  • The Israeli diplomats were welcomed by Bahraini Foreign Ministry representatives and given official accreditations.
  • On Monday, the senior Israeli diplomat charged with opening the embassies in Bahrain and the UAE, Dror Gabbay, arrived in Manama and viewed several potential locations for the embassy offices.
  • Bahraini Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism Zayed al-Zayani arrived in Israel today with a large trade and business delegation to push forward with more agreements and deals.

Behind the scenes: The new embassy staff is under strict security protocols in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

  • Bahrain issued a statement condemning the assassination and calling for all parties to show restraint in order to avoid further escalation.

What they're saying: Gabbay told me the Bahrainis have been very helpful and given a warm welcome to the Israeli diplomats.

  • “It was all very natural and easygoing. I am not sure I would have believed you if you told me this would be the reality three months ago," he said.
  • Gabbay stressed that Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s instructions were to open the embassy as soon as possible in order to start providing consular services, issuing visas and pushing forward business deals.

What’s next: Gabbay told me the goal is to move the embassy to a permanent location by the end of 2021.