Axios from Tel Aviv

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March 30, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

This week's edition (2,152 words, 8 minutes) starts with a look at what the recent wave of attacks in Israel means for Israeli security and Bennett's government. It then takes you to Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to the region.

1 big thing: Wave of attacks is Bennett's biggest test

Security forces stand at the scene of a shooting attack in Bnei Brak. Photo:  Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
Security forces stand at the scene of a shooting attack in Bnei Brak. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The wave of attacks that have killed 11 Israelis in the last week is the biggest test so far for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his fragile coalition.

Why it matters: If the attacks continue, they could lead to the collapse of Bennett's 10-month-old coalition government, which is made up of right, left and center parties, including an Arab party.

Driving the news: The first attack took place last Tuesday when police said an Arab Israeli man who had previously confessed to supporting ISIS killed four Israelis in Beersheba.

  • On Sunday, attackers identified by police as two men from the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm shot and killed two Israelis in Hadera. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • The third attack took place last night when police said a Palestinian from a village in the West Bank who was in Israel illegally shot and killed five Israelis in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv. No organization has claimed responsibility.

The first two incidents shocked Israeli society, as ISIS-inspired attacks are rare in Israel and because the assailants had Israeli citizenship.

  • They also took place as Israeli leaders engaged in diplomatic meetings with its allies. Bennett had a summit with the leaders of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates several hours before the first attack.
  • Shortly before the second attack, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had opened the Negev summit with Secretary of State Blinken and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE.

Between the lines: Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters blamed the government for the attacks.

  • Some on the right also criticized Bennett and Lapid for the diplomatic meetings, saying they were wasting their time on "peace summits," while at the same time projecting weakness and neglecting Israeli society.
  • Adding to the criticism was the fact that Bennett has been less visible to the public and limited in his ability to hold meetings after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

What they're saying: Bennett has condemned the attacks, saying last night that the country "faces a wave of murderous Arab terrorism."

  • "We will fight terrorism with an iron fist," he added.
  • He also convened the Security Cabinet today for the first meeting on the wave of attacks.

The big picture: For years, personal security was one of the main issues Israelis voted on. A feeling of insecurity among the public could erode the very narrow base of support the government has.

  • When the government was formed last year, it vowed to maintain the status quo on many controversial issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, it appears the government won’t have any choice but to take some kind of action.

What to watch: Bennett’s challenge will be to unite the different members of his government around a common policy for restoring security they can all support.

2. Regional leaders focused on possible violence in Jerusalem

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas welcomes King Abdullah II of Jordan ahead of a meeting in Ramallah
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (right) welcomes King Abdullah II of Jordan ahead of a meeting in Ramallah. Photo: Abbass Mohmani/AFP via Getty Images

The wave of attacks inside Israel came as the U.S., Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were all focused on a different issue: preventing potential escalation in Jerusalem next month during Ramadan and the Passover and Easter holidays.

Driving the news: One of the primary goals of Blinken’s trip to the region was to remind both Israelis and Palestinians of the need to avoid provocative actions, a message he reiterated in every meeting in Jerusalem and Ramallah, U.S. officials say.

  • Bennett and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz briefed Blinken on the measures they were planning to take ahead of Ramadan and the Jewish and Christian holidays in order to reduce tensions.
  • After his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, Blinken said, “We’ll work to prevent actions by either side that could raise tensions. We also emphasized the imperative of having a peaceful Ramadan, Easter, Passover — all of which come together in a month’s time."
  • Between the lines: Passover, Ramadan and Easter will all overlap in April, for the first time in 10 years. That increases the potential for violence in Jerusalem as tens of thousands of people converge on the Old City for the holidays.

Another key player in trying to lower tensions is King Abdullah II of Jordan, who traveled to Ramallah on Monday for the first time since 2017 to meet Abbas.

  • That meeting, which came a day after Abbas met Blinken, focused on the need to maintain calm during Ramadan, the Royal Court said in a statement.
  • On Tuesday, King Abdullah met Gantz in Amman to coordinate ahead of Ramadan.
  • That was also a primary topic today when King Abdullah hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog at his palace. That visit was unusual in that it was announced in advance and treated by the Jordanians almost as a state visit, something that hasn’t happened for many years.

What to watch: For now, Jerusalem and the West Bank are relatively calm.

  • Israeli officials worry that the latest wave of attacks could cause further escalation. But they have not canceled plans to allow more Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to travel to Israel to visit family during Ramadan.

3. Israel tries to reassure U.S. on Russia sanctions

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (center).

During Blinken's visit to the region, Israeli officials sought to reassure the Biden administration they are taking steps to prevent Russian oligarchs from using Israel to evade U.S. and European sanctions.

Why it matters: Israeli officials have told me they were concerned in recent weeks about growing criticism in Washington — mainly in Congress and in the U.S. media but also among mid-level officials in the Biden administration — over its policy toward Russia.

Driving the news: Iran and the Russian invasion of Ukraine were the main issues discussed between Blinken, Bennett, Lapid, Gantz and other officials during Blinken's visit, officials said.

  • Israeli sanctions czar Keren Shahar and Lapid told Blinken that while Israel doesn't have sanctions legislation of its own, it is going over U.S. and European sanctions lists to ensure affected Russians aren't using Israel to sidestep the measures, two Israeli officials said.
  • This includes putting new regulations in place that ban planes and ships that are not registered in Israel from staying in the country for more than 24 hours, the officials added.
  • The Israeli officials told me this was done to prevent sanctioned oligarchs, including Israeli nationals, from using Israel as a safe haven for their private jets and yachts, which have been seized by European countries as sanctions are enforced.
  • Of note: A number of Russian oligarchs, who are Jewish, have received Israeli citizenship in recent years.

Shahar also told Blinken that Israel's central bank imposed new guidelines on all financial institutions that prevent sanctioned individuals from transferring money to bank accounts in Israel, per the Israeli officials.

  • Blinken was also briefed on the tightening of defense export controls related to Russia and work being done by the Israeli Ministry of Economy to raise awareness about the sanctions among Israeli tech companies who had business ties to Russia.

What they're saying: "Israel has no comprehensive sanction bill and yet we succeed in being part of the world — the global effort to stop this war through the sanctions," Lapid said at a press conference with Blinken after their meeting.

  • Blinken said the Biden administration appreciates the work Israel is doing on sanctions, as well as "the foreign minister’s commitment to ensure that Israel is not used as any kind of back door for sanctions evasion."
  • A senior State Department official told me the two countries will continue to work together on the issue moving forward.

Behind the scenes: Bennett privately briefed Blinken about his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as those with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a senior Israeli official.

  • Bennett told Blinken that Israel will continue to coordinate its mediation efforts with the Biden administration, France, Germany and the U.K.
  • Blinken said the U.S. values Bennett's mediation efforts and the two countries have been "closely coordinated throughout."

4. Blinken asks Bennett for his Iran deal alternative

 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 27.
Bennett (right) and Blinken on March 27. Photo: Israeli Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Blinken asked Bennett and other Israeli officials for their alternative to a nuclear deal with Iran that will limit Tehran's uranium enrichment, a senior State Department official and an Israeli official told me.

Why it matters: After months of indirect negotiations between Iran and the Biden administration, a draft agreement for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal is almost done.

  • The last remaining stumbling block is Iran's demand that the Biden administration remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations blacklist.
  • Israel, together with its Arab allies in the region, is against a U.S. return to the nuclear deal.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli and U.S. officials said the Iran issue was at the center of the meeting between Blinken and Bennett on Sunday, but regardless of the disagreement, the discussion wasn’t tense.

  • Blinken asked Bennett for his alternative to the nuclear deal and how he would stop Iran from reaching nuclear weapon capability when its current enrichment pace would allow it to do so within weeks.
  • Israeli officials said Bennett told Blinken that Iran can be deterred from moving toward enriching uranium to the military level of 90% if it knows that the U.S. and European countries would ramp up sanctions to the level they've placed on Russia.
  • Bennett also told Blinken that the nuclear deal will only be “a Band-Aid” solution for just a few years, and at the same time, it will give Iran billions of dollars it would be able to use for its regional malign activities and to arm its proxies, Israeli officials said.
  • “It is us here in the region that will have to deal with that afterward," Bennett told Blinken, according to a senior Israeli official.

The Iran deal also came up during the Negev summit a day later.

  • Lapid's Egyptian, Moroccan, Emirati and Bahraini counterparts raised concerns about the nuclear deal and its regional consequences, stressing they are against the Biden administration removing the IRGC from the FTO blacklist, two senior Israeli officials told me.

State of play: EU political director Enrique Mora was in Tehran on Sunday and met Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator to try to find a compromise regarding the IRGC demand.

  • Mora then traveled to Washington for talks with U.S. Iran envoy Rob Malley.
  • During a conference in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, Malley said he doesn’t think a nuclear deal with Iran is around the corner.

5. Scoop: Blinken-MBZ meeting eases tensions

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Abu Dhabis Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, at his residence in Rabat, Morocco.
Blinken meets with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed at his residence in Rabat, Morocco. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

Tuesday's meeting between Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed helped bring down tensions and "move the relationship between the UAE and the U.S. back on the right track," UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba told me.

Why it matters: Relations have been strained since a Houthi missile attack on Abu Dhabi in January.

  • The Emiratis were disappointed with a U.S. response that they saw as too weak and slow, while the Biden administration was subsequently disappointed by the Emirati response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Driving the news: The meeting between Blinken and MBZ, which lasted two hours, started with a discussion of the tensions in the relationship but quickly moved on to issues like the Houthi attacks on the UAE, Iran, Syria, the Abraham Accords and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a source briefed on the meeting said.

  • Blinken told MBZ the U.S. remains committed to helping the UAE defend itself against threats from Yemen and elsewhere in the region, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
  • "It was a positive meeting that helps move the relationship between the UAE and the U.S. back on the right track, where it belongs," Al Otaiba told me
  • Blinken said before the meeting that many U.S. initiatives around the world will be more effective if done in partnership with the UAE.

A day after the meeting, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on key actors in Iran's ballistic missile program.

  • The Treasury Department specifically cited recent Houthi attacks and strikes by "Iranian proxies against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."
  • The U.S. will work with its "partners in the region to hold Iran accountable for its actions, including gross violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors," the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Brian Nelson said in the statement.

Behind the scenes: Emirati officials said Blinken intended to visit MBZ in Abu Dhabi but his schedule changed, by which time MBZ had already left the country for a private vacation in Morocco.

  • Emirati officials saw the fact that Blinken decided to meet him in Rabat as a sign of U.S. commitment to the relationship.
  • Israeli officials say they had also been trying to help mend the relationship, and that the Negev summit — which brought Blinken together with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed — helped lay the ground for the meeting with MBZ in Morocco.