June 14, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,049 words, 8 minutes) starts with the political drama unfolding in Israel after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition suffered an unexpected defeat.

Situational awareness:

  • Three Israeli officials tell me that senior State Department official Barbara Leaf will travel to the region next week as part of an effort to organize another meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on West Bank de-escalation. The State Department said it had no travel plans to announce at this time.
  • The Lebanese parliament today failed for the 12th time to elect a new president to lead the country.

1 big thing: Bibi coalition's embarrassing defeat

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem today. Photo: Menahem Khana/AFP via Getty Images

In one of the most dramatic days for Israel's parliament this year, the Israeli opposition won a crucial vote when its lawmaker was elected as one of the two Knesset representatives on the committee that appoints judges.

Why it matters: The results of the vote dealt an embarrassing defeat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition and the supporters of the government's plan to weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions.

  • But for Netanyahu, this is perhaps the best result he could have hoped for as he struggles to put the drama over the judicial overhaul plan behind him, while also keeping his coalition together.

How it happened: The Knesset voted today to elect the two lawmakers who will serve on the committee that appoints judges. Historically, the coalition and the opposition each have one representative on the committee.

  • The system of appointing judges and the formation of the committee are the most sensitive issues in the government’s judicial overhaul plan. The plan envisions a takeover by the coalition on the process of appointing judges.
  • Netanyahu in recent days made clear to Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Israeli opposition leaders and the Biden administration that he would maintain the status quo regarding the formation of the committee and not divert from tradition.
  • By doing that, Netanyahu would have given a clear signal that the main parts of the original judicial overhaul were dead and that he was heading toward a deal on a compromise formula that would get a broad consensus.

Yes, but: When Netanyahu convened the leaders of the coalition to make a final decision this morning, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is leading the judicial overhaul, and the leaders of the far-right parties pressed the Israeli prime minister to elect two members of the coalition to the committee.

  • Under that pressure, Netanyahu decided to backtrack on his original plan. He ordered the coalition candidates to withdraw and told his coalition members to cast their ballots against the opposition candidate with the aim to ensure that no lawmaker was elected to the committee.

But, but, but: The results of the vote were delayed, prompting rumors that the coalition's plan may have gone awry.

  • When the results were finally announced, it became clear that the opposition representative received 58 votes in favor and only 56 votes against.
  • This meant that four members of the coalition voted against the decision of their party leaders.

State of play: Netanyahu now has two primary options. He can call another vote in 30 days to choose the second representative for the committee, likely a member of the coalition, or he can stall, which would block the committee from forming.

  • Following the vote, opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz announced they were suspending the negotiations with the coalition on the judicial overhaul until the coalition appoints its representative.

My thought bubble: For Netanyahu, who wants to compromise and was concerned by a possible collapse of the overall negotiations, more anti-government protests and a crisis with the White House, this is quite a good result.

  • But the results of the vote are also likely to increase the pressure on Netanyahu from his far-right partners and exacerbate the tensions within the coalition and his Likud party, which is divided on the issue of the judicial overhaul.

2. Abbas visits China as Beijing seeks to grow influence in the Middle East

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Beijing yesterday to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, becoming the first Arab leader to visit China this year.

Why it matters: The three-day visit appears to be an attempt by the Chinese government to build on its successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran and increase its public posture on Middle East issues that have traditionally been dominated by the United States. Beijing earlier this year offered to mediate between the Palestinians and Israelis.

  • The visit is also a signal to the Biden administration that the Palestinians remain disappointed by what they see as the lack of progress to advance a two-state solution and the U.S. government's failure to fulfill key promises, including a White House visit for Abbas and reopening the consulate in Jerusalem.
  • For its part, the Biden administration, which was told about the visit weeks ago, did not object to Abbas' visit, a source briefed on the issue told me.

Driving the news: During their meeting today, Xi told Abbas that China supports Palestine becoming a full member of the UN and vowed to continue to speak in support of Palestine in multilateral forums, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.

  • The Chinese president said he supports the convening of an international peace conference to create conditions for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Xi also told Abbas that China is ready to play a role in the reconciliation efforts between Fattah and Hamas and is willing to establish a strategic partnership with the Palestinian Authority.
  • Abbas, meanwhile, "reaffirmed that the State of Palestine will continue to adhere firmly to the principle of One China, actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, and continue to enhance cooperation with China in all fields," the Palestinian official news agency WAFA reported.

Between the lines: Assaf Orion, a China expert from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, told me China is using its public and diplomatic support of the Palestinians as good PR among Arab and Muslim public opinion.

  • “It costs nothing to the Chinese who even floated a proposal to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. This is all part of China’s efforts to develop an independent policy in the region and promote its global initiative at the expense of the U.S.," he said.

3. Scoop: Bibi says Israel protested Russia's cooperation with Iran

Netanyahu with Putin in 2019. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP via Getty

Israel told the Russian government it is highly concerned about its growing military cooperation with Iran in the war in Ukraine and the possibility it will provide Tehran with advanced weapon systems, Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers in a closed-door hearing on Tuesday, according to three lawmakers who attended.

Why it matters: Israel’s relations with Moscow have become a very sensitive issue since Russia's invasion began. Netanyahu’s comments to the lawmakers were a rare window into the Israeli-Russian dialogue.

The big picture: Since the Russian invasion, Israel has been under pressure from the U.S. and other Western countries to do more to support Ukraine, including with military assistance.

  • The previous Israeli government took a very careful approach to the war, hoping not to create tension with Russia and harm Israeli security interests in Syria.
  • Israel still refuses to give offensive weapon systems to Ukraine, but the growing Iranian military assistance to Russia has slowly pushed Israel to do more to help Kyiv.

Behind the scenes: During a hearing of the Knesset Foreign Relations and Security Committee on Tuesday, Netanyahu said there is a quiet dialogue with the Russian government, which includes an “open and frank” exchange of views, the lawmakers who attended the hearing said.

  • Netanyahu said there are complaints on both sides — the Russians have expressed concern about Israeli support to Ukraine and Israel is concerned by Moscow's cooperation with Iran. “We don’t know how the Russians are paying the Iranians for their military assistance," Netanyahu said, according to the lawmakers.
  • Netanyahu surprised many lawmakers in the room when he praised the policy of the previous government and stressed he will continue implementing it by giving humanitarian and political support to Ukraine but refraining from supplying it with weapons, the lawmakers who spoke to Axios said.
  • Netanyahu claimed that one of the reasons Israel rejected the requests to supply Ukraine with air and missile defense systems like the Iron Dome was due to concerns the sensitive technology could fall into Russian hands and then be given to Iran, which would be able to reverse engineer it and learn how to overcome it, the lawmakers said.
  • During the hearing, Netanyahu was asked why he hasn’t traveled to Kyiv to meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Several lawmakers said Netanyahu tried to joke his way out of the question, saying it’s complicated to take the train. "Biden took the train," one of the lawmakers told him, per the sources in the room.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister's Office and the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment.

4. Scoop: Morocco Negev Forum postponed — again

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (center) and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the UAE hold a press conference at the Negev summit in Israel in March 2022. Photo: Handout/Israeli Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A long-awaited ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum is now expected to take place next month after the Moroccan government postponed it for the fourth time, three U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

State of play: The meeting was originally scheduled for March, but Arab members have expressed concerns about publicly engaging with the right-wing Israeli government.

  • The Negev Forum was established in March 2022 in an unprecedented meeting in Israel attended by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
  • The idea was that the forum would be a platform for multilateral cooperation in the region in the fields of health, economy, climate change, water and security.

Driving the news: There was optimism among the Biden administration and Israeli government officials that the meeting would take place on June 25, but the Moroccans asked the U.S. again to postpone the meeting due to the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, which starts only a few days later, the three U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • According to the officials, the Moroccans asked to schedule a new date in July.
  • The Moroccan Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The big picture: It's not just the delays the forum is grappling with. The Biden administration and several member states want to change the group's name, which refers to Israel's Negev region.

  • U.S. and Israeli officials say the Biden administration thinks that using a more general name or an acronym will help in convincing more countries in the region to join.
  • The officials say one name that was proposed was AMENAthe Association of Middle East and North African Countries.
  • Morocco asked that the new name include the word, "peace." It was then proposed that the forum be called AMENA PD, or the Association of Middle East and North African Countries Peace and Development, the officials said.
  • No final decisions have been made.

What they're saying: A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on private diplomatic discussions and said they have nothing to announce at this time.

  • “The Negev Forum demonstrates the promise and tangible benefits of regional integration, bringing the region together to discuss solutions to shared challenges. We are continuing to consult with partners about a second Negev ministerial this year," the spokesperson said.

5. Scoop: Austin and Gallant to discuss Iran in Brussels

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant give a statement at Israel Aerospace Industries on March 9. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will meet with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant Thursday on the sidelines of the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels to discuss Iran, two Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is holding indirect talks with Iran about what Netanyahu called a possible “mini-agreement” or an “understanding” regarding Tehran's nuclear program. Israel is opposed to any new deal with Iran.

What they're saying: “The meeting is going to be about Iran, Iran and Iran," an Israeli defense official said.

  • The Pentagon declined to comment.

The big picture: The U.S. and Israel have in the last several years boosted military cooperation and sought to increase their power projection in the Middle East in an attempt to deter Iran.

  • The Pentagon recently proposed the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the U.S. military start conducting joint military planning on countering threats from Iran, as Axios previously reported.
  • The Israeli officials said this proposal is expected to be part of the discussion between Gallant and Austin in Brussels.
  • Gallant is also expected to again ask the U.S. to expedite the delivery of the four KC-46 tankers that Israel purchased last year. Israel says it needs the tankers to prepare for a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Between the lines: Since the new Israeli government was formed, Gallant has become a key interlocutor with the Biden administration on a set of issues that extend beyond security.

  • Austin and Gallant spoke on the phone five times in the last six months and met in person once.
  • Thursday's expected meeting will be held in Brussels because Netanyahu hasn't allowed ministers to go to Washington, D.C., for meetings with Biden administration officials since he hasn't been invited to the White House yet.

Many thanks to Sheryl Miller for copy-editing this newsletter.