Axios from Tel Aviv

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March 08, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,081 words, 8 minutes) starts with the growing protests, including in the military, over the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan.
  • It also previews U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's trip to Israel and dives into how talks between the U.S. and Israel on Iran went.

1 big thing: Protests over Bibi's judicial plan rock IDF

An Israeli air force F-15 fighter at the Ovda air base on Oct. 24, 2021. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The growing public opposition to the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul has sent shockwaves through the Israeli military, with hundreds of reserve air force pilots, members of special forces units, and military intelligence officers saying they would not serve if the plan to weaken Israel's Supreme Court is implemented.

Why it matters: The Israeli military, especially the air force and the military intelligence special operations unit, is highly dependent on reservists who sometimes leave their families and jobs for more than 30 days a year in order to serve in front-line positions and take part in active combat.

  • The IDF leadership is concerned that the growing protest among reservists could impact the military’s operational preparedness and capabilities, especially when it comes to the campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and preparing for a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, a senior IDF officer told me.

Driving the news: Hundreds of reservists from the military intelligence special operations unit — a secretive elite unit in the IDF that conducts intelligence operations behind enemy lines — signed a letter two weeks ago announcing they would not report to reserve service if the government’s plan is implemented.

  • Since then, similar announcements have been made by reservists from special artillery units, commando units and the IDF’s signal intelligence and cyber unit AKA unit 8200, which is the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.

The announcement that has shocked the military establishment the most was made by dozens of reserve fighter pilots who said they would not show up for a planned training this week as a protest against the government’s judicial plan.

  • The pilots serve in an F-15 squadron, which participates in airstrikes against Iranian targets in the region almost every week and would have a central role in any possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Training for the pilots, which often takes place at least once a week, is highly important. If they miss a training, they will likely be ineligible to fly in any missions until they attend one. That could put Israel's regular operations in the region at risk.

Behind the scenes: IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi earlier this week warned Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the possible negative ramifications of the protest on the IDF’s preparedness, senior Israeli military officers told me.

What they're saying: Several ministers in Netanyahu’s government, including some from his own party, attacked the reservists, especially the pilots.

  • One minister called them "weaklings," and another minister said “they should go to hell.” A deputy minister said the reserve pilots "should be fired."
  • These statements only escalated the situation, creating outrage among the reservists and pushing many more to join the protest.
  • Netanyahu issued a statement late Tuesday calling for calm and asking to keep the debate respectable.

Between the lines: Most of the party leaders in the current ruling coalition did not serve in the Israeli army or the reserves on religious grounds or did not serve the number of years required for most Israeli citizens.

The big picture: Galant and Halevi convened several emergency meetings with senior reserve officers to try to calm down the protest.

  • Galant in a statement said he told the reservists that refusal to serve is a red line and that politics should stay out of the IDF, but he also reassured them that he will make sure their voices are heard inside the Cabinet meetings. “Whoever is attacking IDF soldiers should not be in public service," Galant added after the meeting.

What to watch: President Isaac Herzog is still trying to put together a compromise formula that will enable negotiations between the government and the opposition over the judicial overhaul plan.

  • Justice Minister Yariv Levin has so far rejected all of the proposals and refuses to suspend the legislation. The coalition announced on Tuesday that it will push forward with the legislation next week and prepare it for the final vote in the second and third readings.
  • Herzog is expected to publicly present his proposal in the coming days.
  • Meanwhile, the organizations leading the protests against the judicial overhaul plan said they're planning a day of resistance on Thursday that will include blocking the roads to Israel’s main international airport.

2. Austin forced to cut trip to Israel short

Lloyd Austin. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The planned "day of resistance" protests over the judicial overhaul and expected roadblocks forced Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to postpone his arrival in Israel to Thursday and will confine his visit to a location within the airport grounds, according to Israeli officials.

Driving the news: Austin, who was initially expected in Israel on Wednesday night, has become very involved in the Biden administration's efforts to de-escalate the situation in the occupied West Bank and prevent things from worsening during the historically sensitive period of Ramadan and Passover.

  • Ramadan begins in two weeks, while Passover will be celebrated in April.
  • The tensions in the West Bank escalated on Tuesday when the Israeli military killed six Palestinians in a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. Among them was a Hamas operative who Israeli officials said killed two Israelis in a shooting attack last week.

What to watch: Galant and Netanyahu will go to the airport area to meet with Austin.

  • Netanyahu is expected to travel to the airport for the meeting via helicopter to avoid the protesters.
  • The Pentagon confirmed that the location of the meetings was moved at the request of the Defense Ministry.
  • Galant is one of the more moderate officials in the Israeli government and is seen by the Biden administration as someone they can work with to calm down tensions, two U.S. and Israeli officials said.

What they're saying: Austin will be "quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming holidays," a U.S. defense official told reporters, adding that the defense secretary also plans to discuss Iran during his meetings.

  • Austin will leave Israel immediately after his meetings with the Israeli leaders, the Israeli Defense Ministry said.

The big picture: On Wednesday, Austin held talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other Egyptian officials. The talks touched on the security situation in the West Bank, according to a statement from the Egyptian presidency.

  • Egypt is expected to host a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials on March 17. At a previous security meeting, Israeli and Palestinian officials pledged to take steps to de-escalate the situation in the West Bank.
  • Austin also discussed the situation in the West Bank on Monday during his meeting in Amman with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

3. Austin's unannounced visit to Iraq

Lloyd Austin meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Lloyd Austin meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. Photo: Handout/Iraqi Prime Ministry Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ahead of his trip to Israel, Austin made an unannounced trip to Baghdad on Tuesday to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and stress the U.S. commitment to strengthen its security partnership with Iraq, the Pentagon said.

Why it matters: Austin is the most senior U.S. official to visit Iraq, a key U.S. partner in the region, since Biden assumed office.

  • Pro-Iranian militias continue to increase pressure on the government in Baghdad to end U.S. military presence in the country.

What they're saying: Al-Sudani, who came to power after he was endorsed by the pro-Iranian factions, stressed in a statement after the visit that the Iraqi government wants to have “balanced relations with countries in the region and around the world."

  • Austin in a separate statement affirmed the U.S. commitment to "advising, assisting, and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces, at the invitation of the government of Iraq, to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS."
  • Austin also traveled to Erbil for meetings with the president of the Kurdistan region.
  • Austin condemned Iranian cross-border attacks, saying they "violate Iraqi sovereignty, put Iraqi lives in danger, and hold the Iraqi people back."

What’s next: Austin invited Iraqi defense officials to a joint defense dialogue in Washington.

4. Smotrich still waiting on diplomatic visa to travel to U.S.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Jan. 11. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has faced heavy criticism over his call for Israel to "wipe out" the Palestinian village of Hawara, is still waiting for the State Department to issue a diplomatic visa for his planned trip to the U.S. in five days, one Israeli and one U.S. official said.

The big picture: The State Department, which condemned Smotrich's Hawara comments, is continuing its internal discussions on whether to approve the Israeli minister's visa, two U.S. officials say.

  • If the U.S. doesn't give the visa, it would be an unprecedented move in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Driving the news: Smotrich, who holds a diplomatic passport, is expected in Washington early next week for a conference hosted by the Israel Bonds organization.

  • Several Jewish organizations in the U.S. and a group of rabbis issued statements calling for the Biden administration to deny Smotrich a diplomatic visa.
  • Smotrich said in a tweet on Saturday that he didn't mean to call for harming innocent civilians. "People sometimes use harsh words they don't mean in order to pass a message. It happens to everyone," he said.

What they're saying: The State Department declined to comment on visa issues.

  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in briefings in recent days that the U.S. will continue to make clear that it rejects Smotrich’s comments.
  • Smotrich's aides have said in recent days that he still wants to go to the U.S.

5. U.S. and Israel looking at Iran from "much closer point of view"

The flag of Iran is seen in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. Photo: Michael Gruber/Getty Images

The U.S.-Israel talks on Iran this week were positive and showed that the two countries are looking at the issue from a "much closer point of view," a senior Israeli official told me.

Why it matters: The talks at the White House, which were the first of their kind since the new right-wing Israeli government assumed office, took place amid growing concerns over the unprecedented advancement of Iran's nuclear program.

  • The discovery by UN inspectors of uranium enriched to 84% — nearly the level needed for nuclear weapons — at Iran's underground nuclear facility Fordow caused even more alarm.

Driving the news: The Israeli delegation, led by Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi included senior officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defense and the intelligence community who deal with Iran.

  • The U.S. team, led by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and the Israeli delegation “reviewed with significant concern advances in Iran’s nuclear program," the White House said in a statement.
  • The White House added that the two teams discussed the enhancement of the security partnership between Israel and the U.S. and pledged to strengthen coordination on measures to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to "further deter Iran’s hostile regional activities."
  • The officials also discussed the recent joint Israeli-U.S. military exercises, which Israeli officials said were focused on training for a possible military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.

What they're saying: "The talks on Iran were really good. The discussions were on a very high level of openness," a senior Israeli official who attended the talks said.

  • A second Israeli official with direct knowledge of the meeting said the talks reflected the fact that Israel and the U.S. are much more aligned on Iran than before.
  • “A nuclear deal is not on the agenda, and the Iranians are helping Russia in Ukraine. We are in a new world and a different environment, and we are looking at this issue from a much closer point of view," the Israeli official said.
  • The official added that the talks were serious. “It was a real discussion on Iran and not just a meeting to check the box. There was a lot of openness on the U.S. side," the official said.

Yes, but: The Israeli government was disappointed that the U.S. didn’t support the proposal by the E3 — France, Germany and the U.K. — to push for a censure resolution against Iran during the International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting earlier this week, Israeli officials said.

  • U.S. Iran envoy Rob Malley said in an event hosted by U.S. liberal advocacy group J Street last week that the Biden administration wanted to see whether IAEA director general Rafael Grossi could get an agreement with the Iranians on inspections.
  • Grossi met with Iran’s president and with its atomic energy chief this weekend, and the officials agreed on a road map for increasing IAEA inspections in Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday the U.S. will judge Iran on its actions. "We expect Iran to follow through with the commitments that it made," he said.
  • Senior White House officials declined to comment.