Jun 9, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, reporting from a contributor in the region and the latest in Israeli politics. Today’s edition is 1,874 words (7 minutes).

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1 big thing: Bibi's Trump-style campaign to stop the transfer of power

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Horacio Villalobos (Corbis), Michele Eve Sandberg (Corbis), Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

On the verge of being replaced after 12 years in power, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is waging a desperate, Trump-style campaign to delegitimize the incoming government and accuse its leaders of perpetrating “the fraud of the century."

Why it matters: The situation has become so tense — with members of the Israeli Knesset facing death threats and demonstrations from angry Netanyahu supporters outside their homes — that the director of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency issued a rare warning of potential political violence.

The backstory: Netanyahu failed to form a government after Israel's fourth consecutive election in March, after which Naftali Bennett — a right-wing former Netanyahu protege — cut a power-sharing deal with the "anti-Netanyahu bloc" to become the next prime minister.

  • Netanyahu's best hopes of sabotaging the new government involve convincing members of Bennett's Yamina party to abandon the alliance before it can be sworn in.
  • But some members of Netanyahu's base appear to be taking that pressure to an extreme. Yamina members were given full security details after — in addition to the death threats and protests outside their homes — one member was followed by a suspicious car for a full day.

What they're saying: Netanyahu initially refused to condemn the incitement against Bennett and his allies, but on Monday afternoon he condemned the violent rhetoric on "every side" and falsely claimed that the media had refused to cover similar incitement against his family.

  • He said the accusations of incitement were a biased attempt to silence the right, and he complained that Facebook and Twitter had suspended the accounts of his son and several of his supporters.
  • The speech drew comparisons to the video Donald Trump released during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, calling for the protesters to "go home" while also praising them and repeating his false claim that he won in a "landslide."

In Monday's speech, Netanyahu also doubled down on his attacks against Bennett and said his power-sharing government with opposition leader Yair Lapid was “the biggest election fraud in history."

  • Netanyahu was referring to the fact that Bennett had promised during the campaign not to join forces with Lapid.
  • Although the incoming government will include mainly centrist and right-wing members, Netanyahu called it “a dangerous left-wing government” and told his party members, "don’t be afraid to go after them."

The other side: Bennett responded with a speech of his own during the evening news, echoing the tone used by Joe Biden on Jan. 6 and calling on Netanyahu to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

  • “Mr. Netanyahu, don’t leave scorched earth behind you," Bennett said.
  • While Bennett was speaking, Netanyahu appeared live on the Israeli equivalent of the right-wing One America News channel and called Bennett a "liar" and a "fraud."
  • Netanyahu's Likud party has also claimed on Twitter (in English) that Bennett and Lapid would turn Israel into a "dark dictatorship" akin to North Korea.

What to watch: Bennett and Lapid need to survive a confidence vote in the Knesset to ensure they take power.

  • Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu ally, was caught on a hot mic saying he would schedule that vote when it "serves us best," rather than following the tradition of scheduling it as soon as possible.
  • Levin announced on Tuesday that the vote would be Sunday, forcing Bennett and Lapid to submit their final coalition agreement two days before the vote rather than one, because they can't submit it on a Saturday.
  • That gives Netanyahu's Likud party more time to scrutinize and criticize the agreement in hopes of convincing right-wing members of the new coalition to abandon it.

What’s next: If the confidence vote succeeds, the swearing-in of the new government will take place on Sunday at 9am ET. Netanyahu is expected to give a speech beforehand attacking the incoming government.

  • On Monday morning, Bennett is expected to enter the prime minister’s office in an official ceremony. Usually, the outgoing prime minister attends to congratulate his successor, but it's unclear whether Netanyahu will do so.
2. The view from Ankara: When Biden meets Erdoğan

Biden with Erdoğan in 2016. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The meeting between President Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan next week on the sidelines of a NATO summit may provide both countries with a fresh start if they reach a consensus on some of their most acute problems, journalist Menekse Tokyay writes from Ankara.

The state of play: The June 14 meeting is politically sensitive in Ankara. Senior Turkish officials are avoiding any comments about it, going so far as to skip public events so as not to be compelled to speak about the meeting.

Why it matters: It will take place in a fragile moment for the U.S.-Turkey relationship, and with many issues to discuss.

  • Turkey's purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system and the government's human rights record have strained the relationship, as has the United States' collaboration with Kurdish-led groups in Syria that Ankara considers terrorists.
  • But Ankara needs to maintain a positive relationship with Washington to keep its fragile economy afloat. Erdoğan wants to use this meeting to prevent any further U.S. sanctions that would harm the Turkish economy and defense sector.

What to watch: Both leaders are expected to compartmentalize the problems at the first stage.

  • The Biden administration is unlikely to show any flexibility on its position that Turkey’s possession of the S-400, activated or not, is unacceptable.
  • But giving up on the Russian-made system would be too politically costly for Erdoğan and make him look weak. As a result, the issue will likely remain unresolved during this meeting.
  • The policy differences in Syria will also be difficult to bridge.
  • Yes, but: Afghanistan could be an avenue for cooperation, including over the postponed Istanbul peace conference and Turkey’s continued security role in Kabul’s international airport after the U.S. withdrawal. 

What they're saying: "President Biden knows Erdoğan very well. The two men have spent a good amount of time together, and they're both, I think, looking forward to having a business-like opportunity to review the full breadth of the relationship," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a press briefing this week.

  • That includes Syria and Afghanistan, he noted.

What’s next: If this much-anticipated meeting is held in a positive atmosphere, it could open the way for concrete results from future meetings, and it'll raise expectations for progress in repairing bilateral ties.

3. Inside Blinken's meeting with Palestinian Americans

Blinken in Ramallah. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty

A group of Palestinian American activists who met virtually last Friday with Secretary of State Tony Blinken urged him to take more action on human rights abuses by Israel against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, two people who attended the meeting told me.

Behind the scenes: Participants in the meeting, which was off the record, told Blinken they were concerned that the Biden administration was not applying its commitment to democratic values, human rights and international law when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why it matters: This was a rare conversation between a U.S. secretary of state and members of the Palestinian American community and came in the aftermath of the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Blinken was asked whether the U.S. would be supporting an international investigation into human rights violations by Israel in Gaza or taking action to hold Israel accountable.

  • Several of the activists stressed that the U.S. should not provide Israel with $1 billion in additional military aid, as Israel has requested, but should instead further increase aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
  • The activists raised several issues, including the situation in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.
  • Other messages shared by some of the attendees included that Hamas doesn't represent most Palestinians and should be held accountable too, and that the U.S. should back the long-delayed Palestinian elections.

What they're saying: “We are committed to rebuilding our relationship with the Palestinian people. Israelis & Palestinians deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity," Blinken tweeted after the meeting.

  • “The administration planned not to touch this issue, but it was an illusion. Now Blinken has an opportunity to leave a mark," a person who attended the meeting told me.

What’s next: The two Palestinian American activists who attended the meeting told me it was a first step and they hope to continue the dialogue with the Biden administration.

4. Inside Blinken's meeting with U.S. Jewish organizations

Blinken in Jerusalem. Photo: Alex Brandon/POOL/AFP via Getty

Shortly after the meeting with Palestinian Americans, Blinken met with the leaders of several U.S. Jewish organizations and told them the administration would soon announce an envoy for fighting antisemitism, three people who attended the virtual meeting say.

Behind the scenes: Blinken told the group that the commitment to Israel’s security is personal to Biden and it endures regardless of the government in power in Israel, one attendee told me.

Blinken briefed the group on his trip to the region and said that after the latest conflict in Gaza, the U.S. was trying to bolster the Palestinian Authority and diminish Hamas, including by not allowing the militant group to benefit from the rebuilding process.

  • Blinken said the Biden administration supports a two-state solution but stressed it was clear-eyed about the prospects of that happening.
  • Blinken told the group the Biden administration is in talks with Israel on replenishing the Iron Dome system.

What they're saying: All of the participants in the meeting said they appreciated Biden’s handling of the latest crisis in Gaza, the three sources who attended tell me.

  • William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Blinken the U.S. Jewish organizations were Biden’s “blocking backs” during the conflict.
  • Both Daroff and J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami told Blinken the administration needs to appoint an envoy to deal with the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world as well as the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
  • CEO of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt and at least four other people on the call pressed Blinken to appoint an envoy for fighting antisemitism.
Bonus: Israel shuns EU envoy

The Israeli foreign ministry effectively boycotted Sven Koopmans, the new EU envoy for the Middle East peace process, during his first visit to Jerusalem last week, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli officials said the boycott was to protest against EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s handling of the recent Gaza fighting. They claim Borrell didn't condemn Hamas' attacks strongly enough or give sufficient support to Israel’s right to defend itself.

Driving the news: Two weeks ago, Koopmans told the Israeli government he wanted to come to Jerusalem for meetings.

  • The Israel Foreign Ministry told Koopmans the timing for the visit wasn’t good and he should postpone.
  • When Koopmans came anyway, all his requests for meetings with representatives of the Israeli government were denied except for one meeting with a Ministry of Defense official, Israeli officials say.

What they're saying: EU diplomats rejected the Israeli criticism and told me: “Koopmans, who has been mandated by the 27 EU foreign ministers as their collective envoy to travel to the region, looks forward to engaging further with Israeli authorities."

5. Ex-Mossad director dismisses China threat

Cohen (R) with Netanyahu. Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty

Just days after stepping down as director of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen criticized U.S. policy toward China and hinted it was too hardline.

Why it matters: In a lecture on Monday, Cohen said he'd discussed China with many senior U.S. officials but always ended the conversations with more questions than answers.

“If there is anybody here who knows what the U.S. wants from China, I would be happy to hear. I am not sure we fully understand if there is a coherent U.S. policy on China."
— Yossi Cohen

Cohen stressed that China is a friendly country to Israel with extensive trade, science, research and tech relations.

  • “We need to be careful not to refer to China as a challenge. We don’t want to create a confrontation with the Chinese who do not conspire against us in any way," he added.

Why it matters: Cohen was until last week one of the most powerful and influential security officials in Israel. All signs show he wants to move into politics after his cooling-down period ends.

  • In his final weeks as Mossad chief, Cohen visited Washington for talks with CIA director Bill Burns and other senior officials, and he even met President Biden.

The backstory: The Trump administration repeatedly pressed Israel to cool relations with China and limit Chinese investments. The Biden administration also views China as America's top foreign policy challenge.

Worth noting: Cohen is close with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an ultra China hawk. Pompeo was in Israel last week for Cohen’s retirement party.