Feb 17, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, a dispatch from a contributor in the region, and our "Bibi Barometer" on the latest in Israeli politics. Today's edition is 2,122 words (7 minutes).
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Situational awareness: The foreign ministers of the E3 (Germany, France, U.K.) will meet in Paris on Thursday for talks on Iran, followed by a joint virtual exchange with U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, the German foreign ministry said today.

1 big thing: The Biden administration's point man on Israel-Palestine

Hady Amr (speaking, on left) at a Brookings event in 2018. Photo: Paul Morigi/Brookings

The man holding the Israel-Palestine file at the State Department, Hady Amr, isn't working on a sweeping plan for peace, but on incremental steps to improve the situation on the ground, several Israeli, Palestinian and U.S sources tell me.

Why it matters: American presidents have for decades arrived in office hoping to reach a historic peace deal. President Biden doesn't see that as achievable under the current circumstances.

  • With Israel-Palestine far down the priority list at the White House, the issue will be handled mainly by the State Department, where Amr serves as deputy assistant secretary for Israeli-Palestinian affairs (unlike Barack Obama, Biden declined to appoint a special envoy for Middle East peace).
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken has made clear that he doesn't expect a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, Amr has been tasked with building trust from the bottom up.
  • Based on my conversations with a dozen current and former Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials, Amr appears to be the embodiment of this more pragmatic approach.

Amr was the "bottom-up" guy during his four years of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the Obama administration.

  • He worked closely with the Israelis to advance projects like 3G networks for Gaza or sewage systems in the West Bank.
  • During the 2014 Gaza War, Amr worked around the clock to redistribute all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians into humanitarian aid for Gaza.
  • It fell to Amr to implement policies agreed to at the top level — often between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Secretary of State John Kerry — in a very difficult political environment.

The backstory: Amr was born in Beirut in 1967 and grew up mostly in New Jersey and Virginia.

  • An economist and foreign policy expert, he joined the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration, spent time in the private sector and then joined the Brookings Institution in 2006, founding its Doha Center.
  • Amr returned to government during the Obama administration, first at the Department of Homeland Security and then as deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  • In 2013, he was brought in by then-Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk — also Amr's former boss at Brookings — to work on economic issues relating to the Palestinians. Amr stayed on through the end of Obama's second term.
  • He was a foreign policy adviser to Biden's campaign and involved in its outreach to the Arab American community.

What they're saying: Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the Israeli government's former coordinator in the West Bank and Gaza, says he found Amr to be a knowledgeable professional who didn't engage in political arguments but rather wanted to get things done.

  • Israeli deputy national security adviser Reuven Azar, who was a close interlocutor of Amr's while serving in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, found him to be pragmatic, humane and focused on improving the living conditions of the Palestinians, a source familiar with his thinking says.
  • An Israeli official who has spoken to Amr since his appointment describes him as intelligent with a very sober view of what's achievable at the moment.

The other side: Palestinian officials tell me they've been impressed with Amr based on their engagements so far.

  • “We would always joke that new American envoy would never know the difference between Sheikh Jarrah and Kafr 'Aqab [two neighborhoods in East Jerusalem]," one Palestinian official said.
  • "He knows. We haven’t spoken to the Americans for years and finally there is someone who listens."

Former and current U.S. officials praise Amr's knowledge of the nitty-gritty and skill at moving difficult issues forward, and they say he was a mentor to the young foreign service officers who worked with him on the Israeli-Palestine file.

  • Indyk, Amr's former boss, tells me he's "the right person for these times because he knows the mechanics, the concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and his job is to improve the situation and that builds on the experience he has."

The bottom line: Amr has a much lower profile than others who have held this portfolio, most recently Jared Kushner. But that fits with the Biden administration's more modest objectives.

2. The path forward

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Amr is developing plans to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, roll back some of Trump's policies and resume financial aid to the Palestinians, likely beginning with $75 million already allocated by Congress for aid and development projects.

  • Those issues are at the top of his to-do list until Israel's election on March 23.
  • He has already held calls with officials from both sides, including the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the Israeli deputy national security adviser, the Palestinian prime minister and the Palestinian director of intelligence.

What’s next: Amr’s debut on the world stage will be at the meeting of international donors to the Palestinian Authority on Feb. 23 to discuss steps to improve the Palestinian economy. Israelis, Palestinians and members of the international community will be watching closely.

  • Amr will have two short-term political challenges: resetting U.S. policy on West Bank settlements without sparking a fight with the Israeli government and drafting a policy on the Palestinian parliamentary elections planned for May 22.

Worth noting: Due to unusual circumstances, Amr is wearing at least two other hats beyond his deputy assistant secretary role.

  • Without a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Amr will represent the U.S. in formats like the Quartet, which includes diplomats from Russia, the UN and the EU. That group met over Zoom on Monday.
  • Amr is also the de facto U.S. head of mission to the Palestinians because the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem was merged by the Trump administration into the embassy to Israel in 2019.
  • The Palestinians ceased almost all communications with U.S. diplomats in the embassy at that time, so Amr will be the key point of contact for Palestinians hoping to communicate with the administration.
3. The view from Khartoum: Country in crisis gets a new Cabinet

Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi in 2014. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty

After several months of political wrangling, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has unveiled his new Cabinet, Wasil Ali reports from Khartoum.

Why it matters: The Sudanese government is facing a deepening economic crisis that is fueling street protests and criticism from political allies.

Driving the news: The much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle saw former rebel leaders becoming ministers, most notably Finance Minister Gibril Ibrahim, who leads Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement.

Who to watch: The new foreign minister is Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi, the daughter of former Prime Minister and Umma Party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, who passed away from COVID-19 in the UAE late last year.

  • Her father and the party were fierce opponents of the normalization deal with Israel, and Mariam was quoted last year as assailing the prospect of ties with the Jewish state.
  • Ironically, Mariam’s grandfather al-Sideeg al-Mahdi was the first Sudanese politician to open direct channels of communications with the Israelis in the 1950s, seeking their help to kick out the Egyptians and secure Sudan’s independence.
  • Her comments led to questions about how she'd handle the Israeli dossier as foreign minister.

Yes, but: Sudanese media reported that Hamdok warned the incoming ministers and their parties that they must either agree to adhere to the government's policies, including with respect to Israel, or steer clear of the Cabinet.

  • Later, the Umma Party issued a statement affirming that Mariam will comply with the government's position on normalization.

The big picture: Hamdok has effectively ceded the Israel issue to the military wing of Sudan's governing council, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

  • A surprise visit from Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen last month to meet with Burhan was met with silence from the government.
  • Hamdok himself made a curious statement during a press conference to introduce the new Cabinet, saying the legislative assembly would have the final say on normalization with Israel.

What to watch: Sudan promised the Trump administration that it would amend laws related to boycotting Israel and sign an agreement to establish diplomatic relations, but it hasn't yet followed through.

  • Blinken spoke on the phone with Hamdok last week. Both sides said the call addressed bilateral relations, the political situation in Sudan and economic cooperation — but neither statement mentioned the normalization process with Israel.
4. The Bibi Barometer: Netanyahu allies with the Jewish supremacists

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

Netanyahu has made great efforts ahead of the March 23 elections to ensure that Jewish supremacists from the Jewish Power party will make it into the Knesset.

Why it matters: This move is equivalent to a U.S. president cutting a political deal with David Duke, the former KKK leader. Netanyahu and the ruling Likud party are legitimizing a racist, xenophobic and homophobic fringe party in hopes that their right-wing bloc will reach a 61-seat majority.

Between the lines: With a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu could pass laws aimed at stopping his corruption trial.

Driving the news: Netanyahu was involved in the negotiations to form a new electoral list called “The Religious Zionism,” which combines three radical parties.

  • Jewish Power is led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism. Ben-Gvir is best-known for ripping the Mercedes emblem off of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995 and declaring, “We reached Rabin’s car, we will get to Rabin too." Rabin was assassinated later that year.
  • The National Union is led by Bezalel Smotrich, who has a history of racist remarks about Israeli Arabs, said the murder of a Palestinian family by Jewish settlers was not terrorism, and organized an anti-gay parade in Jerusalem, which he called “the beast parade." Smotrich is a moderate by the standards of the list.
  • Noam is a radical religious party that focuses primarily on opposing LGBT rights.
  • To sweeten the deal, Netanyahu saved a spot on the Likud electoral list for a member from Smotrich’s party to ensure their election.

But the most dramatic step happened when Netanyahu’s Likud party signed a “surplus agreement” with the new radical right-wing list.

  • In Israel's proportional representation system, such agreements allow parties to combine surplus votes in hopes of gaining an additional seat.
  • Thus, Likud voters could effectively hand another seat to the Jewish supremacists.

Flashback: Netanyahu has done this once before. Ahead of the April 2019 elections, he helped form a list that included Jewish Power and two other radical right-wing, pro-settler parties.

  • The Supreme Court banned one of Jewish Power’s candidates before the elections, and while the list won enough votes to enter the Knesset, no Jewish Power candidates qualified.
  • In 2019, the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC issued an unusual statement condemning Netanyahu. This time AIPAC hasn't said anything.

The backstory: Jewish Power was formed by the followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was elected to the Knesset in 1984 and proposed laws to strip non-Jews of citizenship and segregate beaches, among other steps.

  • His Kach party was boycotted by all other parties in the Knesset, banned from running in Israel's 1988 elections, and later designated a terror organization by Israel, the U.S., Canada and the EU.
  • At the time, senior Likud members compared Kahane's policies to the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis before the Holocaust.

What’s next: If the right-wing bloc does win at least 61 seats, Netanyahu will be dependent on the Jewish supremacists to form a coalition.

  • Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir will be a member of his coalition but not a minister in the government.
5. Qatar wants to mediate between U.S. and Iran

Qatar's emir (C) meets with Iran's supreme leader (R) in Tehran in January. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Qatar is trying to facilitate a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, advocating that both sides return to the 2015 nuclear deal and reduce tensions, Qatari officials say.

Why it matters: In 2012 and 2013, it was Oman that facilitated the secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that paved the way to the nuclear deal. It seems the Qataris want to play a similar role.

Driving the news: Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani spoke last week with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Iran envoy Rob Malley.

  • On Monday, Thani met in Tehran with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss possible re-engagement with the Biden administration. He also gave Rouhani a letter from the emir of Qatar.

What they're saying: Rouhani told Thani that Iran will fully implement its commitments under the nuclear deal only after the U.S. removes all nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, according to Iranian media.

  • Thani told Rouhani he hopes the U.S. will remove sanctions and return to the deal and stressed that Qatar would try to help make that happen.
  • It's unclear if the Qatari foreign minister passed on any messages from the Biden administration to Iran.

Between the lines: Unlike in 2012, many in the Biden administration know their Iranian counterparts and how to contact them, so the Qatari facilitation might not be necessary.

What’s next: Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency sent a letter this week notifying the IAEA's director general of Iran’s intention to stop implementing the “additional protocol” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty starting Feb. 23.

  • That would see Iran curtail its cooperation with UN inspectors, suspend their ability to conduct unannounced visits to nuclear sites.
  • The message to Biden is that the window to save the nuclear deal is closing.
  • The director general of the IAEA is expected in Tehran on Saturday.

Worth noting: A rocket attack on the airport of Erbil in northern Iraq on Monday killed one civilian contractor and injured one American service member and several American contractors. A pro-Iranian Shiite militia claimed responsibility.