Jan 13, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv, and hello to our newest readers.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, our "Bibi Barometer" on the latest in Israeli politics, and the view from another country in the region.
  • This week, we're starting with Israel's hopes of making life under Biden a little easier for America's Arab partners (1,857 words, 7 minutes). Tell a friend to sign up!
1 big thing: Israel to push Biden to take it easy on Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Israel plans to lobby the incoming Biden administration to avoid confrontations over human rights and other contentious issues with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, senior Israeli defense officials tell me.

Why it matters: President-elect Biden has promised to put human rights and democracy at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and he skipped over all three when placing phone calls to the leaders of 17 countries after his election victory. He was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia during the campaign over the war in Yemen and human rights issues.

  • Israel sees its security and intelligence relationships with the three countries as central to its strategy to counter Iran and an important pillar in regional security.
  • Now, Israel fears that Biden will not only seek a deal with Iran, but also cool relations with America's Arab partners.

Driving the news: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt all welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s controversial decision this week to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terror organization.

  • Israel hasn’t taken any position on that decision — which some Democrats are already lobbying Biden to reverse — but has been placing new emphasis on the situation in Yemen in recent weeks.
  • That's due in part to threats from the Iran-backed Houthis on Israeli shipping in the Red Sea, but mainly because of the implications of further Iranian entrenchment in the country for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Israeli officials say.
  • What to watch: The Israelis know Biden will have a very different policy on Yemen than Trump, particularly when it comes to the Saudi role in the war. But they plan to encourage the new administration to make sure its policy shifts don't deepen Iranian influence or jeopardize regional cooperation on other issues.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli defense officials tell me they plan to make the case to the Biden administration that the region has changed over the last four years, with a new regional alignment forming as Israel strengthens its ties with Arab countries.

  • Israel hopes the new administration will prioritize that process over its concerns about the war in Yemen or human rights abuses.
  • On the one hand: The officials say Israel has encouraged Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take steps on human rights issues in order to improve the atmosphere for dialogue with the Biden administration.
  • On the other: They also plan to warn Biden's team that a crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt could push those countries away from the U.S. and toward Russia and China.

What they're saying: “We were very close to losing Egypt several years ago and our message to the Biden administration will be: 'Take it slow, dramatic changes took place, don’t come with predispositions and don’t harm relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE,'" a senior Israeli official told me.

2. The view from Ankara: Biden picks an Erdoğan antagonist

McGurk. Photo: Jordan Pix/Getty Images

The appointment of Brett McGurk as Middle East coordinator on President-elect Biden's National Security Council has already set off alarm bells in Turkey, journalist Menekse Tokyay writes from Ankara.

Why it matters: McGurk, who served as counter-ISIS envoy under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, is considered a staunch critic of the Turkish government’s policies in the Middle East and an outspoken advocate of America's partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS.

  • The SDF is seen by Turkey as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Flashback: In 2017, the Turkish government called for McGurk to be removed from his post over his close ties with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

  • In 2019, McGurk suggested Turkey might have been sheltering ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 
  • In the same year, after a fiery speech from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, McGurk tweeted: “Erdogan called on Muslims to 'unite against the west' at the very moment Turkey is hosting U.S.-designated-terrorist Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Istanbul."
  • McGurk was also critical of Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone in Syria, claiming it would “effectively extend Turkish border 30 kilometers into Syria, including areas of Christians, Kurds and other vulnerable minorities.”

What they’re saying: A critical op-ed by academic Tallha Abdulrazaq was published on the website of Turkey's state-run TRT World network on Jan. 9, arguing that the appointment of McGurk meant “more terror to fight terror." Abdulrazaq described McGurk as the mastermind behind the arming of the Syrian Kurds.

  • “In the name of fighting [ISIS], McGurk was the architect behind eschewing state-actors and long-time NATO allies such as Turkey in favour of using terrorists to fight other terrorists in Syria,” it reads.

What to watch: McGurk will be responsible for coordinating U.S. policies not only in Syria, but also in Iran, Iraq and Libya — all of which are of importance to Turkey.

  • However, the Syrian battleground has changed a lot since McGurk left his post in December 2018, with Turkey's area of influence expanding and America's narrowing.

The bottom line: McGurk will have to find ways to work with Turkey.

3. Bibi Barometer: The center-left is crumbling

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

The center-left is confused and divided heading into Israel's elections in March, with around 10 parties competing for a dwindling number of votes.

Why it matters: Many of those parties could fail to reach the 3.25% electoral threshold, or the equivalent of four seats.

  • In such a scenario, many votes will be lost and the center-left will be dramatically under-represented in the next Knesset.
  • That could help Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc gain a 61-seat majority.

The big picture: The center-left had been strong and united in each of Israel's three elections over the past four years, with Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party spearheading the race against Netanyahu and the Likud. 

  • But after Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government and Blue and White fell apart, the center-left started disintegrating into bits and pieces. Many voters became disillusioned and moved into the undecided camp.

In recent weeks, several new center-left parties were formed:

  • Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai's party, “The Israelis," is projected to get just five seats based on recent polls.
  • Economist Yaron Zelekha's “Economic Party” is near the 3.25% threshold.
  • Parties formed by former Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom and Knesset member Ofer Shelah are all short of the threshold, and a new Jewish-Arab alliance also isn’t likely to get much support.

The once-dominant Labor Party polls around 1%, while Blue and White gets just four or five seats in the latest polls — down from 33 last March before the party splintered.

  • The strongest center-left party in the polls is Yesh Atid, led by former finance minister Yair Lapid, with 16 seats.
  • The left-wing Meretz party sits at five seats in the polls, while the Arab Joint List is projected to shrink from 15 seats to 10.

Driving the news: On Monday, Gantz admitted in a press conference that he'd made a mistake by trusting Netanyahu and joining his government.

  • Gantz called on the leaders of all center-left parties to meet and find a way to run together so as to avoid wasting votes and helping Netanyahu reach a 61-seat majority.
  • In a radio interview on Tuesday, Gantz said he thinks Lapid — a former ally with whom he hasn’t spoken since joining Netanyahu's government — could lead a united center-left bloc.

What’s next: Gantz's call hasn't received a particularly positive response. Most other parties seem to view him as politically toxic.

  • The center-left factions will have until Feb. 4 — the deadline to submit party lists — to reach a joint strategy.
4. The uncertain fate of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem

The consulate in 2013. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman made the case against reopening the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem on Monday in a hearing of the Foreign Relations and Security Committee in the Israeli parliament.

Why it matters: During the election campaign, Biden said his administration would reopen the consulate, which had served as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians until it was shut down by the Trump administration and merged into the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

  • That move would upgrade U.S. diplomatic representation to the Palestinian Authority and signal that the U.S. recognizes Palestinian claims to part of Jerusalem.
  • A request by Biden to reopen the consulate would have to be approved by the Israeli government, and it could turn into a contentious domestic political issue in Israel. An Israeli refusal could create tensions with Biden.

Driving the news: According to Israeli lawmakers who attended Friedman’s briefing, the outgoing ambassador said that, based on State Department policy, the U.S. should not open a consulate in a city that already hosts an American embassy.

  • “This is a decision for the Israeli government to make. It’s for you to decide not for the U.S. administration," Friedman said at the hearing, according to one of the lawmakers who attended.
  • Palestinian leaders cut off ties to Washington after Trump's embassy move, but are preparing a charm offensive for Biden in hopes that he'll reverse a number of Trump's policies, including over the consulate.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this story.

Flashback: The U.S. first opened a consulate in Jerusalem in 1844, when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire. It continued through the British mandate and after the state of Israel was formed, at which time the U.S. Embassy was also established in Tel Aviv.

  • In the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, the consulate became the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority, handling relations with the West Bank and Gaza.
  • In March 2019, the consulate was officially shut down and made a department of the newly inaugurated U.S. Embassy to Israel.
  • The post of consul general was eliminated, and U.S. diplomatic representation to the Palestinian Authority was downgraded. U.S. diplomats handling relations with the Palestinians had to report to Friedman, with no direct channel to Washington.

What’s next: This will continue to be one of several key topics of discussion inside the Israeli government as it prepares for Biden's administration to assume office.

Go deeper: Jared Kushner briefed Jake Sullivan on Trump's Middle East policy

5. Netanyahu considers special envoy to Washington over Iran

Yossi Cohen (R) is one potential envoy for Netanyahu. Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is forming an interagency team to prepare a strategy for engaging the Biden administration on the Iran nuclear file, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office tell me.

  • He's also considering appointing a special envoy for talks with Biden over the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Flashback: Last week, I disclosed a letter in which Netanyahu had demanded full control of Israel's Iran policy ahead of Biden’s inauguration, leading Defense Minister Benny Gantz to reply that the matter was not simply Netanyahu's "personal business."
  • The state of play: Netanyahu appears to be settling on a hybrid approach: forming an interagency team, but also potentially appointing an envoy to negotiate on his behalf.

One name that's been raised for the envoy role is Mossad director Yossi Cohen. Cohen is in Washington this week but hasn’t requested meetings with Biden’s team, Israeli officials say.

  • Another possibility is the outgoing ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who has a frosty relationship with Biden’s team but is Netanyahu's closest adviser.
  • Other options could include Yaakov Amidror or Yaakov Nagel, both former national security advisers to Netanyahu.

The big picture: The Biden and Netanyahu administrations could be on course for an early clash over the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Biden intends to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance, and then he'll seek to negotiate a broader deal. Netanyahu contends that would be a “big mistake."
  • Netanyahu’s aides have been grumbling that Biden will be surrounded by "Obama people" — including the deal's architects and some of its fiercest advocates.

What they're saying: “If we just go back to the JCPOA, what will happen and may already be happening is that many other countries in the Middle East will rush to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. That is a nightmare, and that is folly. It should not happen," Netanyahu said last Thursday when he met Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in Jerusalem.