Jun 2, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • It's a momentous day in Israeli politics, with a new president already elected and make-or-break negotiations on a new government still underway.
  • 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 1,837 words (6½ minutes).

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1 big thing: Crunch time for the "change government"

Naftali Bennett (left) today with Yair Lapid. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/POOL/AFP via Getty

With opposition leader Yair Lapid's mandate to form a new government set to expire at midnight (5pm ET), negotiations are down to the wire with no deal yet.

Why it matters: If Lapid and Naftali Bennett can finalize their deal today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be out of power for the first time in 12 years. If they can't, Israel will likely head for a fifth election since 2019 with Netanyahu still in office.

The state of play: Lapid and Bennett have been closing in on a power-sharing deal that would make Bennett prime minister for two years before Lapid rotates into the job, but two gaps have prevented an agreement.

One has to do with Ayelet Shaked, Bennett's deputy in the right-wing Yamina party.

  • She has raised several last-minute demands, like obtaining a seat on the committee that appoints judges. That would give the right-wing faction of the government more power relative to the center-left and undermine the framework the parties had reached.
  • In recent days, there have been demonstrations by Netanyahu supporters near Shaked's home calling on her to refuse to join a government with the center-left. Her security was also increased due to death threats.
  • Between the lines: If Shaked drops out, the rest of Bennett’s party will follow. Sources involved in the negotiations say it’s unclear whether she is just seeking additional concessions or looking for a way to backtrack from joining the government.

Meanwhile, the Islamist Ra'am party has also raised new demands in the last 24 hours.

  • Several of Ra'am’s demands, like the cancellation of a law that makes it easier to conduct demolitions in Arab towns and villages inside Israel, were rejected by the right-wing faction.
  • The sources involved in the negotiations accuse Netanyahu of working behind the scenes to offer Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas new proposals if he rejects the Lapid-Bennett government, which they say led Abbas in turn to toughen his demands in the coalition negotiations and potentially sabotage them.
  • Without Ra'am, Lapid and Bennett can't reach a majority.

The big picture: The proposed "change government" would be Israel's widest-ranging coalition in history, involving parties from across the political spectrum united only in their desire to remove Netanyahu.

  • The government could end Israel's cycle of continuous elections.
  • However, the last-minute snags in the negotiations are proof of how fragile the coalition will be even if it is formed and how much pressure Netanyahu and his supporters will be able to exert on its right-wing members.

What’s next: If Lapid and Bennett announce an agreement today, the swearing-in will likely be set for next Wednesday. That would give Netanyahu another week to try to peel members away and block a majority.

  • If no government is formed by midnight, Netanyahu will have another 21 days to try to convince members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc to join him in a right-wing government.
  • During this period, any member of the Knesset who gets the signatures of 61 members can form a government. Failing that, a fifth election looms.
2. Herzog elected as Israel's 11th president

Isaac Herzog (center left) with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (center right) at the 31st annual International March of the Living in 2019. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Isaac Herzog was elected today as the 11th president of Israel, winning more than two-thirds of the votes in the Knesset.

Why it matters: The president of Israel gives would-be prime ministers the mandate to form a new government, highly important during the ongoing political crisis in Israel, and can also offer pardons — which could become relevant with Netanyahu on trial for corruption.

Herzog comes from the closest thing Israel has to a political aristocracy. He is the son of Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president; the grandson of Yitzhak Herzog, the first chief rabbi of Israel; and nephew of Abba Eban, the legendary former foreign minister.

  • Herzog was a member of Knesset from the center-left Labor Party for 15 years and ran against Netanyahu as the party's leader in the 2015 elections, which he lost.
  • In 2018, Herzog left politics and was elected chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the world's largest Jewish nonprofit. He beat Netanyahu’s preferred candidate by getting the support of the leaders of Jewish organizations in the U.S.

Driving the news: Herzog won today in a landslide, getting the votes of 87 members, many of them from the political right, compared to 27 for his opponent, Miriam Peretz.

  • Netanyahu's party didn't nominate a candidate. Netanyahu had previously considered running himself in an attempt to gain immunity from his corruption trial.
  • He didn’t support any candidate, likely taking into consideration the fact that he might need to ask one of them for a pardon down the road.

What he's saying: Herzog said in his victory speech that he would focus his efforts on uniting Israeli society after the recent inter-communal violence.

  • Herzog said he would also focus on strengthening Israel’s international standing, leading the fight against antisemitism, and enhancing the bond between Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. and around the world.

The big picture: Herzog is experienced in foreign policy and has close connections in the U.S. with both Democrats and Republicans. He has a personal relationship with President Biden and members of his administration.

What’s next: Herzog will take office on July 9, replacing Reuven Rivlin, who has been president since 2014.

  • During the campaign, Herzog avoided questions about whether he would consider pardoning Netanyahu.
3. The view from Amman: No peace with Netanyahu in power

Blinken (L) with King Abdullah. Photo: Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty

Jordanian officials are watching the political developments in Israel very closely and hoping that the removal of Netanyahu will lead to a thaw in Israel-Jordan relations, Daoud Kuttab reports from Amman.

Behind the scenes: King Abdullah II told Secretary of State Tony Blinken during their May 26 meeting in Amman that no progress would be made in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as long as Netanyahu was in power, Jordanian officials tell Axios.

The big picture: Jordan has custodianship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem — where violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police helped spark the recent fighting in Gaza and continued after it.

  • Abdullah accuses Netanyahu of violating an agreement brokered by then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 to de-escalate another crisis at the holy site. He has recently refused to meet with Netanyahu or take his calls.

Jordanian officials have pressed the U.S. to do more to protect Palestinian worshippers from the Israeli police, and Abdullah also raised the issue with Blinken.

  • After the meeting, State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the U.S. support for "the special role of Jordan in holy sites in Jerusalem" and its commitment to "the status quo at the holy sites."
  • The Jordanians also expressed to Blinken their hopes that the U.S. and the international community would help the Palestinian government in Ramallah financially and make a serious effort to rebuild Gaza, the Jordanian officials say. The State Department declined to comment.

Driving the news: Jordan is also concerned about Israeli attempts to expel Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

  • The homes were built by Jordan in coordination with the UN in the 1950s for Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
  • Jordan recently gave the Palestinian Authority all of the relevant documents from its archives to fight the potential expulsions.
  • Jewish organizations say they owned the land prior to the creation of Israel and have the right to evict the Palestinian families. The UN says that would violate international law.

What's next: The Israeli Supreme Court is reviewing the case and asked the attorney general to submit an updated legal opinion on the matter by next Tuesday. That gives the Israeli government a chance to find a solution to the crisis.

Go deeper: Blinken told Axios last week that the expulsions could cause further violence.

4. Egypt takes diplomatic spotlight amid Gaza reconstruction push

A banner in Gaza City showing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the visit of his intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel. Photo: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Egypt launched a diplomatic push this week for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and the stabilization of the fragile Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

Why it matters: Egypt played a key role in mediating the ceasefire in Gaza and is attempting to use that momentum to recapture its regional role and improve relations with the Biden administration.

Driving the news: Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel made a highly publicized visit to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza on Sunday and Monday for talks on the ceasefire and reconstruction.

  • He met with Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
  • Back in Cairo, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry hosted his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, for talks on Sunday — the first visit of an Israeli foreign minister to Cairo since 2008. The Egyptians also chose to give that visit a major public profile.

The state of play: The Egyptians are aligned with the Biden administration on the need to start the reconstruction of Gaza as soon as possible.

  • But Israel has said it won't allow the reconstruction to start without progress on the returning of the bodies of Israeli soldiers and the release of Israeli citizens held in Gaza.
  • Kamel is trying to start a process that will include progress on both issues in parallel in order to soften the Israeli position, sources familiar with the matter say.
  • The rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority poses another problem. Egypt and the U.S. both want the PA involved in the reconstruction efforts, but Hamas rejects that idea and wants to form a nongovernmental body to deal with the reconstruction.
  • What they're saying: “We have a strategic opportunity. The Egyptians told us they want to turn Gaza into Dubai on the shore of the Mediterranean," Sinwar said on Monday.

Between the lines: The reconstruction of Gaza gives Egypt both diplomatic and economic opportunities.

  • Egypt wants Egyptian companies to be in charge of the reconstruction process, Israeli officials say, and has already proposed building plans worth $500 million, with most of the funding coming from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
  • That would allow Egyptian companies to benefit and the Egyptian government to monitor the reconstruction and make sure no building materials go to Hamas.

What’s next: Israeli officials say Egypt is also considering closing down its current border crossing with Gaza and opening a new one in Rafah with better monitoring systems to prevent the entry of dual-use goods that can have a military benefit for Hamas.

  • One factor making it harder to reach decisions on reconstruction at the moment is the political uncertainty in Israel, Israeli and Egyptian sources say.
5. Vienna progress slows as Iran's election approaches

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

With the Iranian presidential elections looming, very little progress has been made so far in the fifth round of indirect talks in Vienna between the U.S. and Iran, two sources briefed on the talks tell me.

Why it matters: The Iranian elections on June 18 are likely to strengthen the conservative camp, with Ebrahim Raisi — the leader of Iran's judiciary and a close confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the favorite to win.

Driving the news: U.S. officials expressed cautious optimism last week heading into the fifth round of talks.

  • But little progress has been made in recent days on key issues like Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges that can dramatically shorten the "breakout time" to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

What they're saying: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continued to express optimism in a speech on Wednesday, saying the main issues had been agreed upon. 

  • Iran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, has sounded less optimistic this week than during previous rounds, though he said on Wednesday that the parties had reached a point where "all believe that the differences are not unresolvable."

What’s next: The current round of talks will end on Wednesday with a meeting of Iran and the deal's other remaining signatories to decide on the next steps. The U.S. will not take part in that meeting.

  • It's unclear if the talks will resume next week or pause until after the June 18 elections.