Axios from Tel Aviv

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April 06, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,139 words, 8 minutes) kicks off with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's unexpected political crisis. I also spoke to Estonia's prime minister about Russia and Ukraine. And finally, we bring you the view from Abu Dhabi on the first ceasefire in Yemen in six years.

1 big thing: Israeli government on brink of collapse

Naftali Bennett. Photo: Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Naftali Bennett. Photo: Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli government lost its majority in the Knesset on Wednesday when the coalition whip from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's Yamina party announced she was joining the opposition.

Why it matters: The dramatic political development brings the fragile Israeli coalition — which until now had a narrow one-seat majority — to the brink of collapse less than a year after it was formed.

Driving the news: Coalition whip Idit Silman announced Wednesday morning she couldn’t support the unity government and called for forming a new right-wing government without holding fresh elections.

  • Silman offered as a pretext a memo the minister of health sent to government hospitals a few days ago instructing them to uphold a High Court ruling allowing people to bring leavened foods into hospitals on Passover.
  • "I couldn’t allow it to harm Israel’s Jewish identity," she said.

Yes, but: This wasn’t the real reason, according to two political sources in the coalition, who said in recent weeks Silman faced pressure from her family and friends to leave the coalition.

  • Last month's terror attacks and growing criticism by the settler lobby against the government for not giving building permits in settlements in the occupied West Bank heightened the pressure on Silman.
  • But what led to her final decision was a purported political deal she reached with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised her the Health Ministry and a top spot on the Likud list in the next elections if his party forms the next government, according to the coalition sources.

Behind the scenes: Bennett was caught completely off guard by Silman's move, the sources said.

  • Bennett was supposed to meet Silman on Wednesday, but she canceled the meeting and stopped taking calls from the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday, the sources added.

What they're saying: Netanyahu welcomed Silman’s decision and said, "She proved that what interests her is the Jewish identity of Israel."

  • Netanyahu called on other right-wing members of the coalition to follow Silman "and come back home."
  • He has not commented on the reported deal he made with Silman.

Between the lines: Silman’s move represents the further disintegration of Bennett’s party. She is the second Knesset member to leave Yamina since Bennett formed the government, dropping the number of Knesset members in the prime minister's party to just five.

What to watch: The main question is whether other members of Bennett’s party will follow Silman’s move.

  • At least two others — Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked and Knesset member Nir Orbach — spoke publicly about their discomfort regarding some of the government’s policies.
  • If one of them leaves the coalition, the opposition will have a 61 member majority and could dissolve the Knesset and call a new election.
  • Bennett summoned all the remaining members of Knesset from his party for an emergency meeting Wednesday.

The bottom line: The Knesset is in recess until May 8, so no votes can take place until then. The government could theoretically survive with only 60 seats until March 2023 when a new budget needs to be approved.

  • It will be almost impossible for Netanyahu to form a government in the current Knesset. Therefore, a new election in the coming months is highly likely.

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2. Estonia PM warns against "peace at any price"

Kaja Kallas in August 2021.
Estonia Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/AFP via Getty Images

The international community shouldn’t push for “peace at any price” with Vladimir Putin, Estonia Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told me in an interview on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Estonia, like Latvia and Lithuania, is a member of NATO and the EU but also a neighbor to Russia. The Baltic states fear if Putin is not defeated in Ukraine he could become more aggressive.

  • Kallas, 44, became Estonia's first woman prime minister in January 2021, following in the footsteps of her father, Siim Kallas, who served as prime minister from 2002 to 2003.
  • She's been one of Putin's most vocal critics in Europe, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine.

What she's saying: Speaking to Axios two days after images of a reported massacre in the town of Bucha emerged, Kallas said occupied areas of Ukraine were "not only a battlefield, but also a crime scene."

  • She said Russia's targeting of civilians should be prosecuted as war crimes, but stopped short of calling Putin himself a war criminal, as President Biden did.

State of play: Kallas expressed concern that pressure to reach a ceasefire would allow Russia to claim victory and keep the territories it has occupied. In such a scenario, she stressed, Putin’s “appetite” would grow.

  • “If he is not punished for the crimes committed, then he will just go on. There will be a pause of one year, two years and when he gets his act together, it will all repeat in a much harder or harsher way," she warned.
  • "We have already made this mistake twice, that if there's peace in place, then let's forget about what happened," she said, referring to Putin's invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

Rather than pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reach an immediate ceasefire on any terms, she's urging the international community to do more to help Ukraine and stop Putin.

  • “We can give more military aid, we can give more humanitarian aid and also politically isolate Russia in order for this to stop," Kallas added.

The big picture: Kallas said she was reassured by statements from U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and leaders of other NATO powers that they will defend "every inch" of the alliance's territory.

  • “We have no doubt about this. No NATO country has ever been attacked. So we feel safe," she said, adding that the Biden administration had not rejected any requests from Estonia.
  • Still, she said more needs to be done to strengthen the Baltic states on NATO's eastern flank to deter Putin.

What to watch: Kallas said she wants to boost NATO’s presence in Estonia to have a “division-sized” military force in the country made up of Estonian and allied troops.

  • Kallas said she hopes such decisions will be made at the NATO summit in June in Madrid.

3. Israel should call Putin out, Kallas says

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, on October 22 2021.
Bennett speaks to Putin during their meeting in Sochi on Oct. 22, 2021. Photo: Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik via Getty Images

Kallas told me the Israeli government should call Putin out for “playing on the suffering of the Jews” when he talks about the "de-Nazification” of Ukraine.

Why it matters: While Israel has condemned the Russian invasion and voted against Russia at the UN, it has taken a more neutral stance in its mediation efforts and has not publicly condemned the Russian claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis and the entire country must be “de-Nazified."

Between the lines: Israeli officials have told the U.S. and other allies they need to take a careful approach to the Ukraine crisis to ensure that military cooperation with Russia in Syria continues.

What she's saying: "One thing maybe that is very specific to Israel is that Putin is using this argument of de-Nazification. And I think it deeply undermines the sufferings of your people, and you could be more vocal about this and saying that this is not OK."

Yes, but: Kallas didn't criticize the Israeli government’s position on the invasion and said she understands why Bennett is trying to keep a neutral line.

  • “You can't be a mediator if you have chosen a side really in this war, so I understand where you are coming from," she said.
  • But Kallas added Israel should also look at the overall picture and make sure that in the long run “it is on the right side of history."

State of play: Estonia's top military commander said Sunday that the Russian threat is pushing the Estonian army to be more like the Israel Defense Forces.

  • “What he meant,” Kallas explained, is that Israel invested heavily in defense and made sure all military capabilities are prepared for any possible attack.
  • Estonia’s menacing neighbor to the east means it too must be “ready to fight back, but hopefully it’s not necessary,” she said.

What to watch: Kallas said Estonia has good security cooperation with Israel and that while she can't speak publicly about weapons procurement deals, "one of the options" is to buy Israeli military equipment.

The latest: On Tuesday, Bennett condemned the Bucha massacre while Lapid accused Russia of "war crimes against a defenseless civilian population."

4. View from Abu Dhabi: Caution and hope after Yemen truce

Forces loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels march in a military parade in Saana.
Forces loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels march in a military parade in Saana.

Weeks of intense diplomatic efforts led by the UN and U.S. have yielded a truce in Yemen, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National, writes for Axios.

Why it matters: The immediate result of the truce has been the easing of a fuel crisis and greater freedom of movement, which will likely bring relief to Yemenis struggling with one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The backstory: A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Iran-backed Houthis since March 2015, after the Houthis overthrew the government in Sanaa.

  • According to the UN, around 24 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, including almost 13 million children. More than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have been killed as a result of the conflict.
  • Yemenis greeted news of a two-month truce with both hope and caution. A previous truce in 2016 and a partial halt to the fighting in 2018 both ultimately collapsed.

State of play: The Saudi-led coalition had in recent months halted Houthi advances in the key region of Marib.

  • The Houthis responded by stepping up attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including on energy infrastructure.
  • After those attacks, the U.S. pledged to help neutralize the Houthi threat to its Gulf partners.

Driving the news: The two-month halt to all fighting in Yemen went into effect late on Saturday, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for most of the Muslim world.

  • During the two-month truce, the Saudi-led coalition will allow vessels carrying fuel into the key port of Hodeida and let flights from the Yemeni capital to Egypt and Jordan resume.
  • Both Hodeida and Sanaa are held by the Houthi rebels. Hodeida handles the majority of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports.

Yes, but: Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak claimed on Tuesday that the Houthis were already breaching the truce with “military deployments, mobilization of troops and vehicles, artillery and drone strikes." Houthi media outlets also accused the pro-government forces of "breaches."

  • Consultations held between Yemeni political factions in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh have been underway and will continue until Thursday, but the Houthis have declined to take part.
  • The UN hopes the meetings might still result in greater regional support for Yemen, including the restoration of basic services and the creation of economic opportunities.

What to watch: If direct talks between the government and the rebels do take place as a result of the truce, it will be a huge step toward ending the war.

  • A settlement of the Yemen crisis could dramatically reduce tensions in the Gulf, increase stability and remove a point of tension between Washington and its partners in the region.

Worth noting: Crude oil futures dipped Monday morning in Asian trade on the news of the truce, which could lower the risk to Saudi supply.

5. Iran deal standoff

Illustration of two hands with matching pieces of a nuclear symbol.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

EU mediators still haven't found a solution that will bridge the difference between the U.S. and Iran over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps terror designation and allow the parties to move toward a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, a senior U.S. official told me.

Why it matters: The nuclear talks have stalled over Iran’s demand that the Biden administration remove the IRGC from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations blacklist.

Driving the news: The Biden administration considered removing the IRGC from the terror blacklist in exchange for a public commitment by Iran for regional de-escalation and other assurances.

  • But the Iranians rejected this proposal, leading the U.S. to take it off the table and not put forward any new proposals since then, a senior U.S. official told me.
  • According to the official, EU political director Enrique Mora and his team are still trying to come up with creative ideas for solving the IRGC issue, but thus far haven't found a solution that both the U.S. and Iran find acceptable.

Watch to watch: Blinken is meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the U.K., known as the E3, in Brussels today. The Iran nuclear crisis will be among the main issues discussed at the meeting.

  • U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley traveled to Brussels to join Blinken at the meeting. He will meet separately with his E3 counterparts to discuss the stalled talks with Iran, the senior U.S. official told me.

What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday the Biden administration still believes there is an opportunity to overcome the remaining differences with Iran.

  • Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted Monday that the pause in the nuclear talks is a result of “the excessive demands by the U.S" and stressed that Iran won’t yield.
  • “If the White House behaves realistically an agreement is achievable," the Iranian foreign minister added.