January 06, 2021

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We're back after a week off and looking ahead to Biden-Netanyahu tensions over Iran, Israel's upcoming election and more (1,779 words, 7 minutes).

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1 big thing: Netanyahu aides fret that "Obama people" will shape Biden's Iran policy

Rice and Kerry in the Oval Office. Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle are concerned that President-elect Joe Biden is filling his administration with veterans of the Obama administration, some of whom they've had difficult relations in the past, particularly over Iran.

Why it matters: The Biden and Netanyahu administrations are on course for an early clash over the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Several of Netanyahu’s aides at the Israeli National Security Council have been grumbling about the fact that Biden will be surrounded by "Obama people" — including the deal's architects and some of its fiercest advocates.

What they're saying: Israel's outgoing ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has told several interlocutors in Washington that he's worried about the influence John Kerry and Susan Rice will have on Biden's foreign policy, according to an Israeli official and a U.S. official.

  • Both Kerry and Rice will be joining the Biden administration, but their new posts have little to do with Iran or Israel. Kerry will be Biden's climate czar while Rice will head the Domestic Policy Council.
  • As secretary of state, Kerry had a very tense relationship with Netanyahu, mainly over the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinian issue.
  • As national security adviser, Rice viewed Dermer as essentially a Republican political operative and once joked that she hadn't met with him because he was "too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson’s events in Las Vegas."

The big picture: Relations between Barack Obama, Netanyahu and their respective staffs were strained, particularly in Obama's second term. Biden's incoming team looks a lot like Obama's from that time.

  • But while Netanyahu's aides are particularly concerned about the return of Rice and Kerry, they've had fewer complaints about incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Biden's pick to run the State Department, Tony Blinken.
  • One Netanyahu adviser told me he's less concerned about Kerry and Rice than Biden's expected choice of Wendy Sherman for deputy secretary of state. Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran deal.

Driving the news: Sullivan reiterated Sunday on CNN that Biden intends to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance, and then he'll seek to negotiate a broader deal. But Netanyahu won't be Biden's only headache as he attempts to carry that policy out.

  • Iran announced on Monday that it had resumed the production of 20% enriched uranium, and Tehran has also threatened to expel nuclear inspectors.
  • A minister from Netanyahu's government, Tzachi Hanegbi, said on Tuesday that Israel should respond to Iran's enrichment move with a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, “because the world is sitting idly by."
  • The other side: The Institute for Policy and Strategy, a think tank headed by retired Israeli Gen. Amos Gilead, released a paper on Sunday calling for quiet dialogue with Biden's administration on Iran in order to avoid a public confrontation that could prove damaging for Israel.

What’s next: There have still been no contacts between the Israeli government and the new Biden administration, and it's unclear who will handle Israel's outreach to Biden on Iran. One name that has been mentioned is Mossad director Yossi Cohen.

Worth noting: A Biden transition official said Biden had been "one of Israel’s strongest supporters" and that the Biden-Harris administration "will not only further strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship but also ensure that it enjoys bipartisan backing." Dermer declined to comment for this story.

Go deeper: Biden's nuclear deal dilemma

2. Scoop: Embassies are "natural next step," Moroccan king tells Netanyahu

Security forces in Rabat, Morocco, monitor protests against normalization with Israel. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty

Morocco went most of the way to normalizing relations with Israel last month, but only committed to opening liaison offices, rather than embassies.

Why it matters: That decision led to speculation that Morocco was waiting to see if the Biden administration would roll back Trump's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara before going all the way with Israel.

  • It also disappointed Netanyahu, who hoped Morocco would commit to full embassies, according to a senior Israeli official.

Driving the news: Morocco's King Mohammed VI told Netanyahu in a call last week that he was committed to opening embassies as part of the next phase of the process, Israeli officials briefed on the call tell me.

  • Mohammed also responded positively when Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat raised the embassy issue in a meeting in Rabat two weeks ago, which was also attended by Jared Kushner, Israeli officials say.
  • An Israeli official added that normalization was "moving very fast" and would ultimately include embassies.

The state of play: An Israeli delegation is visiting Rabat this week to inspect Israel's former liaison office, which was shut down 20 years ago but is still owned by the Israeli government, Israeli officials tell me.

  • Morocco also held onto its property in Tel Aviv, and a Moroccan delegation made a similar visit there last week to see if the office could be reopened on a short timetable.
  • Morocco and Israel also committed in their joint statement to start direct flights and to resume contacts at all levels of government. Several phone calls between Israeli and Moroccan ministers have since taken place.

What’s next: Israeli officials say the plan is for both sides to open liaison offices as soon as next week, in temporary locations if necessary.

  • The U.S. also announced it would open a consulate in Dakhla in Western Sahara. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs David Schenker will visit Morocco next week to discuss those plans, the state department announced.

Worth noting: Sudan formally joined the Abraham accords on Wednesday, signing onto the declaration the UAE and Bahrain signed in September at the White House. From the U.S. side, the declaration was signed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who visited Khartoum today.

3. Bibi Barometer: Netanyahu's Arab Spring

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

Ahead of Israel's March elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to win over an unlikely constituency: Arab voters.

Why it matters: Netanyahu has used inflammatory and even racist language against Arab politicians and voters in every election since 2015. But as he attempts to secure a majority for his "pro-Bibi" bloc, he's changing his tune.

Between the lines: Arab turnout surged to a record-high 65% in the previous election, motivated in part by Netanyahu's anti-Arab campaigning. That earned the Arab Joint List 15 seats in the Knesset.

  • But many Arab voters were left disappointed after center-left candidate Benny Gantz elected to join Netanyahu’s government rather than try to form a government with the support of the Joint List.
  • The List has become increasingly politically irrelevant, and its decision to oppose Israel's peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates also divided Arab voters.
  • Turnout is expected to drop sharply among Israel's Arab minority, which comprises about one-fifth of the population. Polls show the Joint List falling to 10 or 11 seats in polls.

Driving the news: Netanyahu rarely visits Arab towns, but he made stops last week at COVID-19 vaccination stations in two Arab cities.

  • While visiting the city of Umm al-Fahm, Netanyahu appealed directly to Arab citizens to vote for his Likud party.
  • Earlier this week, Netanyahu said at an internal Likud meeting that he wants to save a spot for an Arab candidate on the Likud list. He added that he'll consider appointing an Arab Cabinet minister if he forms the next government.
  • In recent months, Netanyahu has opened a backchannel to Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Joint List's Islamist faction — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Netanyahu's move has implications for other parties, many of which had avoided naming Arab candidates for fear that Netanyahu would exploit such a move politically.

  • Since Netanyahu began courting Arab voters three other parties announced that they would add Arab candidates to their electoral lists.

What to watch: Netanyahu hopes to win two to three seats from Arab voters and further weaken the Joint List. He sees that as one route to the 61 seats he needs for a Knesset majority that would allow him to pass laws to block his corruption trial.

  • Netanyahu hopes to travel to the UAE and Bahrain in the coming weeks as part of a pre-election appeal to Arab voters.

4. Gulf summit: A deal on Qatar, worries over Iran

The Gulf leaders in Al Ula. Photo: Royal Council of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty

This week's Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia drew headlines for a deal to end the blockade of Qatar after 3.5 years, but it ended with a message to the incoming Biden administration on Iran.

Why it matters: For several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, ending the diplomatic crisis with Qatar was part of an effort to remove points of friction with Biden and shift the focus to other issues, like Iran.

Driving the news: At the end of the summit, the Saudi foreign minister announced that his country — together with the UAE and Bahrain — would resume full diplomatic relations with Qatar.

  • Qatar agreed to withdraw all lawsuits it has filed against its neighbors in courts around the world and to tone down its anti-Saudi media campaign.
  • Egypt, which also took part in the blockade, announced it was ready to mend relations, but asked Qatar to agree to discuss issues over which the two have clashed.
  • The closing statement of the Gulf summit didn’t refer directly to the rift with Qatar but spoke about the need for a united stand against regional threats —mainly Iran, which was a primary point of contention between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Between the lines: The closing statement also congratulated Joe Biden for his election victory and called for strengthening strategic relations with the U.S. But it included a message for Biden on Iran.

  • The Gulf leaders stressed that any future negotiations with Iran must address not only Iran's nuclear program but also its regional behavior and missile program. Gulf countries must be a part of any such negotiations, the statement said.

What they're saying: “What we hear from the incoming Biden administration shows they recognize the danger of the Iranian threat and that they will take it seriously," Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan said at a press conference after the summit.

Go deeper on the Qatar-Saudi deal

5. Kelly Craft's Christmas in Bethlehem

Christmas eve in Bethlehem. Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty

U.S. ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft became the first senior U.S. official to openly visit the Palestinian Authority in three years when she attended a Christmas mass in Bethlehem last month.

Why it matters: The fact the Palestinian leadership allowed the visit to go ahead could be another sign of their “charm offensive” ahead of Biden’s inauguration.

Driving the news: Craft’s visit to Bethlehem was designated as “private," sources at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem tell me, but it was approved by the Palestinian government and coordinated with the Palestinian security services. It didn't include meetings with any senior Palestinian officials.

  • Craft has a very good relationship with the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, who helped organize the visit.

Behind the scenes: U.S. Embassy sources tell me Ambassador David Friedman wanted to join Craft on her visit, but he scrapped the plan over concerns the Palestinians would object to his presence. He'd hoped to tape a Christmas greeting at the Church of the Nativity.

  • A U.S. Embassy spokesperson denied that account but said the embassy would not comment on "internal deliberations regarding scheduling for mission staff or VIP visitors.”

Flashback: After President Trump’s announcement in December 2017 that he'd be moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority severed almost all ties with the U.S. government.

  • Intelligence channels continued to function, though, and CIA director Gina Haspel made a secret visit to Ramallah in late January 2020 after Trump rolled out his Israel-Palestine plan.