Axios from Tel Aviv

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March 23, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,246 words, 8½ minutes) covers Bashar al-Assad's surprise visit, the latest on the Iran deal, F-15 fighter jets, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken's upcoming travel to the Middle East.

1 big thing: U.S. blindsided by Assad's UAE visit

yria's Bashar al-Assad meets with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktouma, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, on March 18.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad (left) meets with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on March 18. Photo: Government of Dubai/Media Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Biden administration was caught off guard last Friday when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates, two sources with direct knowledge of the issue told me.

Why it matters: Assad's visit, which was his first to an Arab country since the Syrian war erupted 11 years ago, added more tension to the already strained relations between the U.S. and UAE.

Driving the news: Assad arrived in Abu Dhabi on Friday and met Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

  • The Syrian and UAE state media reported about the visit only after Assad arrived in Abu Dhabi.
  • The Biden administration learned about the visit from the media, the two sources said, adding that White House and State Department officials felt blindsided.
  • MBZ briefed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about Assad’s visit, an Israeli source briefed on the meeting told me.

What they're saying: "We are profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Sunday.

  • Assad "remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the pre-war Syrian population, and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children," Price added.
  • Biden administration officials raised the issue with Emirati officials and conveyed their disappointment and protest over the visit, Price said on Monday.
  • Price stressed that the Biden administration will not lift or waive sanctions imposed on Syria.
  • The State Department declined to comment on whether it was surprised by Assad’s visit.

The other side: The Emiratis pushed back on the U.S. criticism. An Emirati official told me Assad’s visit was part of a new broader strategy of talking to everyone in the region and trying to have no enemies.

  • "Our new approach emphasizes diplomacy, de-escalation and engagement … and we put our own interests first," the Emirati official said.

Catch up quick: Relations between the U.S. and the UAE have been strained since a Houthi missile attack on Abu Dhabi in January.

  • The Emiratis were disappointed with the U.S. response, which they felt was too weak and too slow.
  • MBZ refused to meet CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie when he visited Abu Dhabi in February, claiming it took the general 22 days after the missile attack to show up.
  • The Emiratis were also disappointed when the Biden administration declined their request to redesignate the Houthis as a terror organization.

The big picture: Earlier this month, the UAE abstained from a UN Security Council vote on a U.S.-led resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

  • The U.S. enlisted Israel to lobby the UAE to vote in favor of a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly. The Emiratis ultimately voted to condemn the invasion.

2. U.S. hardens position on IRGC designation

RGC leaders in January 2020.

IRGC leaders in January 2020. Photo: Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The White House in recent days has hardened its position on whether to remove Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from a terror list, two U.S. sources with direct knowledge of the issue and two Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: An agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal is nearly complete, but Iran's demand that President Biden reverse former President Trump's decision to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is one of the last remaining sticking points.

Driving the news: In recent weeks, U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley negotiated the IRGC point indirectly with the Iranians through EU political director Enrique Mora.

  • One of the proposals raised by the U.S. in the negotiations was that the Biden administration would remove the IRGC from the FTO blacklist in return for a public commitment from Iran to de-escalation in the region.
  • The Iranians didn’t agree to the U.S. demand and suggested giving the U.S. a private side letter instead, two U.S. sources and one Israeli official told me.

As time passed, the White House became increasingly concerned about the domestic political fallout of some kind of a deal with Iran regarding the IRGC and started cooling down to the idea, the two U.S. sources said.

  • Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez publicly criticized the possibility of removing the IRGC from the terror blacklist.
  • Republicans have also expressed outrage over the possible move. Three former senior national security officials in the Trump administration called the move “dangerous capitulation” in a joint statement issued on Tuesday.

What they're saying: A White House National Security Council spokesperson said the portrayal of the indirect talks with the Iranians regarding the IRGC wasn’t accurate.

  • “As we have said, the president will re-enter JCPOA if it’s in the best interest of America’s national security and fully returns Iran to its nuclear commitments. There remain a number of outstanding gaps in these negotiations. The onus on closing these gaps rests with Iran," the NSC spokesperson said.

Yes, but: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Iraqi counterpart that Iran has offered some initiatives to the U.S. through the EU coordinator regarding the highly important remaining issues and stressed the onus is now on the U.S. side to show good faith, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

What’s next: State Department spokesperson Ned Price hinted on Monday that the U.S. is waiting until after the two-week Nowruz holiday to determine whether Iran is willing to move on its demands.

  • Price on Tuesday said the Biden administration has long discussed “alternatives” with France, Germany, the U.K., Israel and Gulf countries to prepare for a scenario where there is no return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • “We will have a good sense of all of this before long," he said.

3. Netanyahu attends testimony of key witness in corruption trial

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at the courtroom in the Jerusalem District Court, on March 23, 2022.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at the courtroom on March 23. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/AFP via Getty Images

A key state witness in Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial testified this morning that the former prime minister had instructed him to take regulatory action that would benefit telecommunications tycoon Shaul Elovitch.

Why it matters: The testimony concerned "Case 4000," in which Netanyahu stands accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly providing Israel's biggest telecom company with regulatory benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for favorable coverage from one of Israel's major news websites, which Elovitch also owned.

Driving the news: The witness, Shlomo Filber, was one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and served during the period in question as director-general of the Communications Ministry. Unlike during previous sessions in his trial, Netanyahu personally attended and stared at Filber while he was testifying.

  • The prosecutors had been concerned that Filber, who to this day is an avid Netanyahu supporter, would backtrack in court from the statement he gave to police investigators, according to reports in Israeli media.
  • During his testimony, Filber claimed that he had told the truth during his interrogation, but that the tone of his statements had been influenced by the way the police had presented the accusations against him.
  • Filber said the facts remained the same, but that he would express them in a different context and at "a different volume."

What he's saying: In his first meeting after being appointed as director-general, Filber recounted, Netanyahu — who was serving as both prime minister and communications minister — raised Elovitch and his company, Bezeq.

  • "I was about to leave and then Netanyahu told me: 'Elovitch reached out to me and said that the prices were wrong. Look into it. Don’t stop the competition and see if you can moderate the prices,'" Filber said in court, miming a hand gesture he said Netanyahu had made.
  • Filber said he understood in real time that Netanyahu was asking him to act in Elovitch’s favor and to solve his problems.

What’s next: In the coming days, Netanyahu’s lawyers will have their chance to grill Filber. It's unclear whether they are preparing any surprises to refute his testimony or attempt to trip him up.

  • Filber’s testimony is likely to be one key factor in determining whether and how plea negotiations between Netanyahu and the attorney general will resume.

4. Israel urges Biden administration to sell F-15s to Egypt

Four F-15's from Seymour Johnson AFB fly over Charlotte Motor Speedway during the national anthem on Sunday, May 28, 2017. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Four F-15's fly over North Carolina on May 28, 2017. Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Israel is encouraging the Biden administration to approve a major arms deal with Egypt for the sale of F-15 fighter jets, two senior Israeli defense officials told me.

Why it matters: The Israeli lobbying efforts show the depth of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship in recent years and the efforts Israel is making to improve relations between Washington and Cairo.

The big picture: Democrats and Republicans demand the Biden administration put conditions on military assistance to Egypt, including improving the human rights situation in the country.

  • In the process of approving arms sales with Arab countries, the administration must also notify Congress and say whether the deal harms Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.
  • Israeli support of the F-15 deal could significantly help in convincing the Biden administration and members of Congress to approve it.

Driving the news: The outgoing commander of CENTCOM Gen. Frank McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the U.S. plans to approve the sale of advanced F-15 jets to Egypt.

  • He added the deal has been under discussion for a long time.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials say the F-15 deal came up in the last year as Egypt began to rethink an agreement it signed with Russia at the end of 2018 for the purchase of Su-35 fighter jets.

  • The Trump administration threatened to impose sanctions on Egypt if the deal with Russia went through.
  • The Egyptians stressed they signed the deal with Russia because the U.S. didn’t agree to provide them with advanced jets.
  • Egypt had already been rethinking the Russia deal, but after U.S. and other Western countries ramped up sanctions on Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine, Egyptian officials started to look even more seriously for an alternative to the Su-35 deal.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials told the White House National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon that they support the F-15 deal.

  • The Israelis said it was better for the U.S. and Israel to have U.S. weapon systems in Egypt instead of those from the Russian or Chinese governments, the two Israeli defense officials said.

Between the lines: One senior Israeli official told me that Israel has been concerned for a long time about the strained Egypt-U.S. relationship and thinks that strengthening and improving U.S.-Egyptian ties is in Israel’s interest.

Flashback: After signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Egypt became the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel. The Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S., which is mostly used to purchase U.S. military equipment.

  • Following the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the Obama administration halted several arms deals with Egypt. Since then, there has been a decline in arms deals with the U.S., and the Egyptians started buying weapons from Russia.
  • In late January, Secretary of State Tony Blinken decided to continue withholding $130 million from the annual U.S. military aid to Egypt after determining that the Egyptian government failed to address the Biden administration’s concerns regarding human rights.

What they're saying: A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the Biden administration is in regular consultations with the Egyptian government about specific defense needs.

  • The spokesperson added that U.S. military assistance to Egypt is “an important part of the strategic partnership” between the countries and supports “Egypt’s important role in promoting regional stability."
  • A State Department spokesperson said, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on or confirm proposed defense sales until they have been formally notified to Congress.”

5. Blinken to visit Israel, West Bank, Morocco and Algeria

Secretary of State Blinken meets Palestinian President Abbas last May. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Secretary of State Blinken (left) meets Palestinian President Abbas last May. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Secretary of State Blinken is expected to travel to the Middle East next week after he joins President Biden’s trip to Brussels and Poland, four U.S. and Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Blinken arrives at a time when U.S. relations with many of its partners and allies in the region are tense. His original itinerary included stops in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but as the dates of the trip shifted back and forth several times, those visits were dropped.

  • Blinken wants to use the visit to show U.S. engagement in the region is continuing, the U.S. officials say.

Driving the news: Blinken is expected to arrive in Israel on Saturday evening and have meetings with Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian officials in Ramallah.

  • King Abdullah of Jordan is expected to visit Ramallah on Sunday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It's unclear if he will meet Blinken, who is expected to be in Ramallah on the same day.
  • Blinken will travel on Monday from Israel to Morocco and from there to Algeria, according to the four officials.

Between the lines: Palestinian leaders are frustrated that the Biden administration has not followed through on promises to them, in particular reopening the consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority.

  • In recent months, there have been growing tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the conflict in disputed Western Sahara.

State of play: Blinken will arrive in Israel and the Palestinian Authority ahead of an unusual situation that happens once every 10 years, when Passover, Ramadan and Easter take place at the same time — heightening the potential for violence in Jerusalem.

  • The West Bank and Gaza have been relatively calm in recent weeks, but in East Jerusalem, there have been several stabbing attacks on Israelis. In two recent cases, Israeli police shot the Palestinians they said committed the attacks.
  • The latest: On Tuesday, an Arab Israeli with a previous conviction for supporting ISIS murdered four people in Beersheba in southern Israel.