Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.

April 21, 2021

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv

  • We've got a packed edition this week (1,886 words, 7 minutes), with stops in Vienna, Ramallah, Amman and more.

Subscribe here, and tell a friend!

1 big thing: U.S.-Israel tensions build up as Iran talks progress

Photo illustration of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu looking at each other with a split Iran in the background.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Eric Baradat (AFP), Gali Tibbon (AFP)/Getty Images

As nuclear talks in Vienna enter a critical stage, the gaps and suspicions over Iran between the Israeli government and the Biden administration are growing.

Why it matters: Both governments want to avoid the kind of public fight that emerged during the negotiations over the 2015 deal. But in private, there's growing frustration on both sides about the lack of trust, coordination and transparency.

Driving the news: In between the first and second round of nuclear talks — which the U.S. hopes will lead to a restoration of the deal and Israel hopes will fail — an apparent act of Israeli sabotage led to an explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility.

Behind the scenes: According to two Israeli officials involved in the talks, Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat raised concerns that the U.S. was not showing sufficient consideration of the Israeli government’s positions during its Iran diplomacy, Israeli officials tell me.

  • The U.S. side raised concerns of its own that Israel was engaging in military and intelligence operations against Iran without fully informing Washington, the Israeli officials say.
  • The Israelis stressed their right and duty to defend Israel against Iran. Israeli officials tell me they had notified the U.S. in advance of recent operations. "It was not a surprise for the Americans," one Israeli official told me.

On the one hand: The Israelis claim that the Biden administration hasn't been fully transparent with them on the proposals it is making in Vienna — for example, on the non-nuclear sanctions the U.S. would consider lifting, per a senior Israeli official.

On the other: A senior Biden administration official pushed back on those claims, stressing that senior U.S. and Israeli officials have been engaged in close consultations on an ongoing basis. “The U.S. and Israel will maintain this close and candid dialogue going forward," the U.S. official said.

  • The Israeli prime minister’s office declined to discuss their talks with the Biden administration.

What’s next: Senior Israeli national security officials will descend on Washington next week for talks on Iran. They include Ben-Shabbat, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Aviv Kochavi, military intelligence chief Tamir Hayman and Mossad director Yossi Cohen.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene a meeting on Thursday with those officials as well as Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to discuss the policies to be presented in Washington.
  • A senior Netanyahu aide told me the size of the gap with the U.S. will only be clear after the face-to-face meetings next week. “We don’t think it is a done deal, and as long as we have a chance to give our input, we are going to give it a try, hoping it makes a difference."

Go deeper: Iran's president says deal could be reached soon

2. Palestinian elections: Abbas considers postponement

Studying the electoral rolls in Ramallah. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously considering postponing the May 22 parliamentary elections and could announce the move within days, Palestinian and Israeli sources say. The Biden administration is hinting it wouldn't object to such a move.

Why it matters: The May vote would be the first election in the Palestinian Authority in 15 years. A postponement would be a sign of the deep democratic deficit in the West Bank and Gaza and could lead to protests.

  • Abbas and his close aides are concerned they could lose the election and strengthen Hamas.
  • Israel and the Biden administration privately share those concerns.

Driving the news: On Monday, Abbas convened a meeting of the leadership of his Fatah party.

  • In a public statement after the meeting, he stressed his commitment to holding the election on time.
  • But in the meeting itself, he discussed the possibility of postponing it, citing possible interference with voting in East Jerusalem.
  • In another statement, Abbas and the chair of Hamas' political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, stressed that the elections must include Jerusalem. This was a change for Hamas, which hadn't previously held up voting in Jerusalem as a pre-condition for holding the elections. 

The state of play: The Palestinians asked Israel several weeks ago to officially allow the elections to take place in East Jerusalem. Israel neither rejected nor approved the request.

  • Israeli and Palestinian officials say that to this day, Israel hasn’t responded. Netanyahu still hasn’t made a decision on the issue, Israeli officials say.
  • In private talks, Israeli officials have told their U.S. and European counterparts that Israel won't sabotage the election and noted that Israel did allow voting in East Jerusalem in 2006. But they haven't committed to allowing voting this time.
  • Meanwhile, the Israeli police have prevented Palestinian candidates from holding election rallies and press conferences in Jerusalem and even arrested several candidates.

Behind the scenes: Abbas had been telling foreign dignitaries that the Biden administration pressed him to hold the elections. When U.S. officials got wind of that, they asked Abbas and his aides to stop because it wasn’t true, sources familiar with the issue told me.

  • The Biden administration isn’t pressing the Palestinians to postpone the elections either, but it is signaling it would not object.
  • “We have taken a consistent position that the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian government and people to determine, not the U.S. government. That remains our position. It is up to the Palestinians to determine how to proceed," a senior U.S. official told me.

What they're saying: Abbas' adviser Nabil Shaath told An-Nahar newspaper on Tuesday that the elections could be postponed if Israel doesn't respond to the Palestinian request — the first time a Palestinian official raised the possibility of postponement publicly.

  • Palestinian and Israeli officials said Shaath’s statement reflects Abbas’ thinking.
  • “The penny finally dropped, and Abbas finally understood he is way over his head, that his party is weak and divided and that the price of postponing the elections could be lower than continuing with it," an Israeli official said.

What’s next: Palestinian sources say Abbas is now looking for a public explanation for a potential postponement, and East Jerusalem is the likely rationale. Hamas' view on a delay is less clear.

3. Bibi Barometer: An act of desperation

Illustration of Benjamin Netanyahu barometer

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

With his mandate to form a government due to expire in two weeks, and his rivals' efforts to form an alternative coalition gaining momentum, Netanyahu has a new strategy: changing the election rules.

Why it matters: If Netanyahu can’t form a coalition by May 4, he will face the real danger of losing the prime minister’s post for the first time in 12 years.

  • The mandate would likely pass to opposition leader Yair Lapid, who would have 28 days to try to form a unity government with Naftali Bennett, the right-wing kingmaker whom both sides have been courting.

The state of play: Netanyahu's only path to a majority would require him to bring in the Islamist Ra'am party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • But he has been unable to convince the radical right-wing Religious Zionism party, which includes Jewish supremacists, to join a government supported by Ra'am.
  • Right now, he appears stuck.

Driving the news: Worse, Netanyahu lost a crucial vote on Monday in the Knesset on the formation of the parliamentary committee that will control the Knesset agenda.

  • While Bennett voted with Netanyahu's right-wing bloc, Lapid and another right-wing Netanyahu rival, Gideon Sa'ar, convinced Ra'am to vote with the anti-Netanyahu bloc, giving them a majority.
  • The loss was a major blow for Netanyahu and his Likud party. "We are aware we are probably going to be in the opposition soon. Netanyahu will be the head of the opposition," Likud whip Miki Zohar said after the vote.

In an attempt to prevent the mandate from passing to his rivals, Netanyahu floated an initiative to change the entire Israeli electoral system.

  • His new bill calls for direct elections only for the prime minister's post, to be held in 30 days.
  • The bill is unlikely to pass and would likely be overturned by the Supreme Court if it does because it effectively changes the rules in the middle of the game.

What he's saying: At a press conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu said the snap elections were the only way out of the political crisis.

  • Netanyahu attacked Bennett for trying to form a government with the center-left and called on him to immediately back the electoral changes.

What to watch: The key players are Lapid and Bennett.

  • Lapid offered Bennett the prime minister's post for two years under a rotation agreement, but it's unclear if they've reached any understandings so far.
  • If Netanyahu fails, his former protege will have to decide whether to cross the Rubicon, join forces with the center-left, and replace Netanyahu as prime minister.

4. Scoop: Cyber intelligence firm NSO negotiates with Jordan

King Abdullah II. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO negotiated with the Jordanian government in recent months on a deal to sell new spying technology, two sources briefed on the matter tell me.

Why it matters: The Jordanian intelligence services surveil terrorist groups, but they also monitor opposition activists and crack down on domestic criticism of King Abdullah II.

Driving the news: The sources say the negotiations between NSO and the Jordanian government started late last year, and a delegation of the company’s senior executives and technology experts traveled to Amman.

  • They gave a presentation to Jordanian officials, including from the General Intelligence Directorate, and demonstrated the capabilities of the new technology.
  • According to one source, the technology related to new spyware for collecting intelligence and other technology to monitor messaging services.
  • One source said a contract was signed, but a second said it was unclear if the deal was finalized.
  • An NSO spokesperson told me: "As a long-standing matter of policy, we do not comment on our contacts with states. The above is not being deemed as a confirmation of the alleged facts.”

The big picture: The negotiations took place in the months leading up to the latest domestic crisis in the kingdom, during which former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein was put under house arrest over an alleged coup attempt.

  • Jordanian security services monitored his communications for months and allegedly spied on his meetings with tribal leaders.

Flashback: According to press reports, NSO has done business with the Jordanian government in the past. Haaretz reported last year that NSO uses the code name “Jaguar” for Jordan in internal documents.

Worth noting: NSO came under harsh criticism in recent years over the use of its Pegasus spyware by several clients around the world to surveil human rights activists, opposition figures, reporters and political rivals.

  • In October 2019, Facebook sued NSO over the alleged use of Pegasus to hack 1,400 WhatsApp accounts, including those of 100 human rights activists and journalists. NSO rejects the allegations.
  • The Guardian reported last month that the Department of Justice had renewed a probe involving NSO.

5. Abraham Accords: Forward on all fronts

The foreign ministers of (L-R) Israel, Cyprus, the UAE and Greece, April 16. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP via Getty

Donald Trump is gone, but his Abraham Accords process has taken significant steps forward over the past few weeks.

The latest developments:

  • Sudan on Monday approved the abolishment of a 1958 Israel boycott law, opening the way for more investment and political engagement between the countries.
  • The UAE’s Etihad Airways has started direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, while Bahrain’s Gulf Air announced it would fly from Manama to Tel Aviv starting on June 3.
  • Bahrain appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel three weeks ago.
  • Emirati cybersecurity czar Mohamed al-Kuwaiti visited Israel for the first time this week for meetings with his Israeli counterpart and private tech companies.
  • The Moroccan and Israel ministers of education held a virtual joint cultural event for hundreds of Moroccan and Israeli students to celebrate the Mimouna — a traditional celebration of the Moroccan Jewish community on the last day of Passover.
  • The first-ever joint summit between Israel, the UAE, Greece and Cyprus was held last Friday in Paphos, focusing on the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s actions in the region.

The state of play: The Biden administration says it will continue to promote normalization between Israel and the Arab world, though it doesn't like to use the term "Abraham Accords," preferring "normalization process." The administration hasn’t named a point person for the issue.