Axios from Tel Aviv
March 01, 2023
Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.
- This week's edition (1,992 words, 7½ minutes) brings you five scoops related to officials' travel plans, Iran's "remarkable" nuclear progress, and why David Friedman thinks Bibi and the Israeli right have gone too far.
🚨 Situational awareness: Israeli police used stun grenades and water cannons on protesters who were rallying against the government's judicial overhaul plan today.
1 big scoop: Top Israeli officials to visit White House to talk Iran
Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi are expected to visit Washington early next week for meetings with senior Biden administration officials that will focus on Iran, two Israeli and U.S. officials said.
Why it matters: The U.S. and Israel are highly concerned about the unprecedented advancement of Iran's nuclear program.
- A top U.S. defense official said on Tuesday that Iran will need only 12 days to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to build one nuclear bomb, though the U.S. has also said it doesn't believe Iran has made the decision to resume its weaponization program.
State of play: Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday that since the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran's "nuclear progress" has been "remarkable."
- Kahl said that before the Trump administration left the nuclear agreement, Iran needed a year to break out and get enough 90% enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb.
The international Atomic Energy Agency is continuing to investigate Iranian activity in its underground nuclear facility in Fordow, which included enriching at least small amounts of uranium to 84% purity.
- This is the highest known enrichment level Iran has engaged in and is only slightly short of the 90% purity needed for building a nuclear bomb.
Yes, but: Israeli and U.S. intelligence services say that even if Iran gets enough 90% enriched uranium for a bomb, it will still need another one to two years to build a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile.
- CIA director Bill Burns told CBS’ Margaret Brennan in an interview broadcast over the weekend that even though Iran had made significant advances in its nuclear program, the U.S. doesn't "believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003."
- Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Wednesday, that the 84% enriched uranium that was found by IAEA inspectors “was a sample from the side of a tap in the process, the particle cannot be even seen with a microscope," per Iran's semi-official Mehr News Agency.
- Eslami added that the IAEA inspectors “observed the material that had come out of the process and found that its purity was not more than 60%."
The big picture: Dermer and Hanegbi, who are both known as Iran hawks and are leading Israel's Iran policy, are expected to meet White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials, an Israeli official said.
- Dermer and Hanegbi's visit will also take place amid growing concerns in the White House about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan and escalating tensions in the West Bank.
- Two U.S. officials told me the administration wants to work with Netanyahu on countering Iran but it will be harder to do if "his backyard is on fire."
- The White House and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
2. Scoop: Austin to visit Israel as tensions in West Bank intensify
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is expected to arrive in Israel next Wednesday for a two-day visit, two Israeli and U.S. officials told me.
Why it matters: Austin will arrive as the U.S. continues its efforts to de-escalate tensions in the occupied West Bank to avoid further violence during the historically sensitive period around the holy month of Ramadan and Passover.
- Austin’s visit will also take place against the backdrop of growing concerns in Israel and Washington over the significant advance in Iran's nuclear program.
The big picture: Austin will be the fourth senior Biden administration official to visit Israel since the current right-wing government was sworn in two months ago.
- Last month, the Israeli military and the U.S. Central Command conducted the biggest-ever joint military exercise, which included training for a military strike against Iran.
Driving the news: Last Friday, Austin spoke to his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant and encouraged the de-escalation of tensions in the occupied West Bank, following an Israeli military raid in Nablus that resulted in civilian casualties, the Pentagon said in a statement.
- Gallant said in a statement that he told Austin the Nablus operation was needed to stop a planned attack against Israelis and said the two discussed joint efforts to calm down tensions in the West Bank.
- Gallant also said he told Austin that Israel is concerned about the ongoing uranium enrichment by Iran and stressed Israel is committed to preventing Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons capability.
Between the lines: Austin’s visit is also meant to signal U.S. support for Gallant, who the Biden administration sees as a reliable interlocutor the U.S. can work with, a U.S. official said.
- The Pentagon declined to comment on the trip.
3. Scoop... McConnell: U.S. shouldn't weigh in on Bibi's judicial overhaul
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told me in an interview after his recent trip to Jerusalem that the Israeli government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court is an internal Israeli matter and the U.S. should not intervene.
Why it matters: McConnell’s comments often set the tone for many Republican lawmakers who, unlike several Democrats, haven't expressed public opposition to the judicial overhaul plan.
Driving the news: McConnell visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel last week as part of a Senate delegation of Republicans.
- The delegation met with Netanyahu and Herzog in Jerusalem.
- A separate delegation of Senate Democrats led by majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited Israel at the same time.
What they're saying: McConnell told me the issue of the Israeli government’s judicial plan almost hardly came up in the meetings in Jerusalem and stressed this was a domestic issue.
- “I don't have an opinion I'm willing to express about it," he said in an interview this week.
- "This is something the citizens of Israel are going to have to sort out for themselves without any American influence. … It isn’t any of my business to give Israelis advice about how to sort this out," he added.
The big picture: Democrats in Congress are increasingly voicing their concerns over Netanyahu’s controversial plan and its implications for Israel’s democracy and the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship.
- Biden told the New York Times last month that any fundamental changes in Israel’s judicial system should be based on a consensus to get legitimacy from the public and be sustainable.
Behind the scenes: McConnell told me a key issue that was discussed with Netanyahu was Israel's policy toward Ukraine.
- "We want to see as much help for Ukraine internationally as we possibly can, and to the extent that the government of Israel could head in that direction, that would be a good thing," McConnell said.
- He added, however, that he understands the complicated situation Israel is in with Russia.
4. Scoop: The real reason Bibi didn't go to the UAE in January
Netanyahu’s visit to the United Arab Emirates was postponed in early January because of Emirati concerns that it would cause regional tensions with Iran, three Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the issue told me.
Why it matters: The new details about the trip's cancellation partially dispute what officials told reporters at the time. They also shed light on where the two countries, which forged diplomatic relations more than two years ago, differ when it comes to their public posture toward Iran.
- It was the fifth time that an official trip by Netanyahu to the UAE has been canceled or postponed. He was scheduled to travel to the Gulf country the last time he was prime minister to celebrate the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE. But those trips were also canceled.
Catch up quick: When Netanyahu assumed office again last year, he said his first foreign trip would be to the UAE.
- In late December, the Prime Minister's Office began briefing reporters about Netanyahu's trip to the UAE, which was being planned for the second week of January.
- But on Jan. 3, several hours after far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount compound, also known as Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem, Netanyahu's office said the visit was postponed.
- Netanyahu’s aides said at the time that the postponement had to do with logistical issues and wasn’t connected to the heightened tensions and condemnation, especially by Arab countries, of Ben-Gvir’s visit.
But, but, but: The reason for the postponement wasn’t logistics as they claimed, according to the three Israeli sources who were directly involved in the planning of the trip. They requested anonymity to speak freely about events that led to the trip's postponement.
- The Emiratis wanted the visit to focus on celebrating the Abraham Accords and the countries' bilateral relationship, the three Israeli said.
- But Netanyahu wanted to use the visit as a public signal to Iran, the officials told me.
- According to the Israeli officials, the Emiratis were concerned Netanyahu would give public statements against Iran while on their soil. They didn’t want the visit to increase tensions with Iran and decided to postpone it, the officials said.
- The Israeli Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.
- Two Emirati officials declined to comment on the trip's postponement but said they do want Netanyahu to visit.
State of play: Israeli officials say Netanyahu understood the situation and is committed to keeping any visit to the UAE focused on bilateral issues.
- But the increased tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank since then have created another obstacle and political sensitivities that delay the scheduling of a new date for the visit, the Israeli officials said.
5. Scoop: Trump's ex-ambassador slams Bibi's judicial overhaul
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman used a recent conservative conference in Tel Aviv to express concern and push back against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan, according to two people with direct knowledge of the issue.
Why it matters: Friedman was one of former President Trump’s close confidants and remains close to Netanyahu. His support is incredibly important to the Israeli right.
Driving the news: Friedman made the remarks last week at a national security conference hosted by the Tikvah Fund and the Hertog Foundation — two U.S.-based conservative institutions that also fund and cooperate with Israeli conservative groups and think tanks.
- According to a person who was in the room and took notes and another person who was briefed on what happened, about 80 people attended the session, including many right-wing conservatives and Americans.
- During the session, Rothman said the judicial plan is only aimed at making the Israeli judicial system more like that of the U.S. on issues like appointing judges, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because the conference was not open to the public.
- At that point, Friedman raised his hand and asked to comment, the sources said. When he was called on, Friedman criticized Rothman and the judicial plan.
Friedman, who was at one time Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer, pushed back on Rothman’s claim that the plan will make Israel's judicial system more like that of the U.S., stressing the situation in the U.S. is very different, the sources said.
- According to the source in the room, Friedman said he was in favor of judicial reform in Israel but that the government’s plan “was going too far for me and for many Americans” because it will harm the court’s ability to protect minority rights.
Friedman focused his criticism on the override clause that will allow the Israeli government to bypass Supreme Court rulings with a simple 61-member majority, both sources said.
- Friedman said in the U.S., the courts exist to protect minority rights and the override clause will prevent the Israeli courts from doing the same, according to the sources. “You compare this to the U.S., but it doesn’t work like that in our system," he told Rothman, per the source in the room.
- When Friedman finished speaking, dozens of people in the crowd clapped enthusiastically, according to the sources. Rothman responded by saying the Knesset will protect minority rights. “He looked embarrassed," one of the sources said.
- Friedman declined Axios' request for comment.