Nov 11, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Thanks for reading, and please tell your friends to sign up.
  • We're looking today at how leaders across the region are reacting to Biden's win, elections in Jordan, and the life of Saeb Erekat (2,210 words, 8 minutes)
1 big thing: Mixed reaction to Biden in Middle East

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The reactions across the Middle East to Joe Biden’s victory revealed the strategic calculations of leaders in the region heading into a post-Trump era.

Driving the news: Some leaders quickly congratulated Biden while others hesitated. Some were restrained in their statements, while others couldn’t hide their joy at President Trump’s defeat.

The first Arab leader to congratulate Biden, minutes after CNN called the race, was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

  • Egypt is one of America's primary allies in the region and is perceived as the leader of the Arab world. Sisi, who also quickly congratulated Trump in 2016, was signaling that he wants to keep it that way.
  • Trump's lauding of Sisi as "my favorite dictator” was a sharp break from Barack Obama, who responded coolly after Sisi seized power and never invited him to Washington.
  • The friendly ties between Trump and Sisi date back to December 2016, when Sisi postponed a vote in the UN Security Council following a phone call with the president-elect.
  • What to watch: Biden signaled during the campaign that, unlike Trump, he will push strongmen like Sisi on human rights.

The second Arab leader to congratulate Biden was Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is anxious to get off to a good start with Biden after a difficult stretch with Trump.

  • The Trump administration has dialed up the pressure on the Lebanese government over the influence of Hezbollah, and it recently sanctioned Aoun’s son-in-law — former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil — for alleged corruption.

King Abdullah of Jordan was also quick to congratulate Biden.

  • Biden is expected to roll back some Trump policies that put Abdullah under massive pressure, including the severing of funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which affected millions of Palestinians in Jordan.

Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed didn't hesitate in congratulating Biden either.

  • The UAE has been preparing for a potential Biden victory for several months, and it made sure to get a blessing from Biden and other senior Democrats for its normalization deal with Israel.
  • The Emiratis hope the goodwill they won with that deal will help them navigate Biden world, particularly given their concerns about a possible revival of the Iran nuclear deal.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waited more than 12 hours to congratulate Biden.

  • The main reason was that the Palestinian leadership wanted to see other reactions in the region and finesse the language it would use, Palestinian officials said.
  • For the Palestinians, Biden’s victory ends four years of strong political and economic pressure from the Trump administration and three years with almost no contact with the White House.
  • Palestinian leaders don’t expect Biden to revive the peace process, but they hope he will publicly reject Israeli annexation, roll back many of Trump’s decisions and return to a more traditional U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One outlier was the Saudi response. It took King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 24 hours to issue a statement congratulating Biden.

  • Between the lines: Saudi Arabia has faced sharp scrutiny in Washington during the Trump presidency, but not from Trump himself.
  • He backed almost everything the Saudis did and took virtually no action over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • Biden, by contrast, said during the campaign that Khashoggi was murdered on MBS' orders, stressed that he wouldn't sell weapons to the Saudis and promised to "make them the pariah that they are."
  • The Saudis will likely try to avoid a clash with Biden however they can.

Iran's leaders didn’t congratulate Biden, but many Iranian officials issued statements welcoming Trump’s defeat.

  • Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed that Iran would judge Biden on his deeds rather than his words.
  • He also sent a message to Gulf states that aligned themselves with Trump, tweeting: “Trump's gone in 70 days. But we'll remain here forever. Betting on outsiders to provide security is never a good gamble."

What’s next: The Biden administration will have many domestic challenges at the top of its priority list, and apart from Iran, the Middle East doesn't rank high on Biden's agenda.

  • But as his predecessors have found, the Middle East will produce a lot of work for the new administration whether they like it or not. 
2. The view from Jordan: Low election turnout, high COVID cases

Election posters in Amman. Photo: Laith Al-jnaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Jordanians went to the polls on Tuesday to vote for members of their only elected body, the House of Representatives, Daoud Kuttab reports for Axios from Amman.

Driving the news: The pandemic contributed to a very low turnout of 30%, down from an already low 37% at the last elections in 2016.

  • The big winners were candidates representing tribes in addition to pro-government candidates. Candidates from left-wing, progressive and nationalist lists fared badly.
  • The Islamic Action Front, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was only able to win seven seats, down from 15 in 2016.
  • No female candidates won outright, only taking the 15 seats allotted to women under a quota system.
  • Many well-known politicians were unable to win a return to parliament.

Why it matters: The failure of any single list or party to win a significant share of seats will further strengthen the Royal Palace and the government, which will be able to govern freely and rebuff any attempts to obstruct its policies. It's a good result for the king and the security forces.

  • The elections were overseen by the Independent Election Commission, established after the Arab Spring. The constitution still gives the king the power to appoint the prime minister, Senate and judges.

As soon as polls closed, Jordanians were ordered to stay home for four days of lockdown to help flatten the coronavirus curve. The order came under emergency defense orders that have been in effect since March.  

  • The COVID-19 situation has also rapidly deteriorated over the last three months after Jordan kept cases and deaths low during the initial outbreak.
  • Jordan, a country of 10 million, recently recorded a daily record 5,877 cases — one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

What to watch: Jordan’s elections are taking place at a time of regional uncertainty due to the efforts of the Trump administration to push Arab countries into normalizing relations with Israel.

  • While Jordan was the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty for Israel, in 1994, it is also a strong supporter of the Arab Peace Initiative, which made future Arab normalization with Israel contingent on Palestinian statehood.

Worth noting: Jordan is strategically important to the United States, and it's the recipient of $1.25 billion in annual U.S. aid under an agreement signed by the Trump administration in 2018.

3. Bibi's new man in Washington

Erdan (L) with Netanyahu. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Jan. 20 is Inauguration Day for Joe Biden, but another person will also enter a new post in Washington: Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan.

Why it matters: The former minister from Netanyahu's Likud party will have to navigate Biden's Washington, which the Israeli government fears will be far less cozy than Trump’s.

The big picture: Erdan will replace Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s closest confidant who served as ambassador for eight years and was one of the most influential and powerful diplomats in Washington.

  • To be effective, Erdan will have to make sure he's perceived the way Dermer was, as Bibi’s long arm in Washington. 
  • Erdan’s first challenges will be to try to reverse the trend of Israel becoming a partisan issue in Washington, and manage relations with Biden’s White House at a time when big policy differences seem unavoidable.
  • “I hope my friend Gilad Erdan is taking a crash course in spoken Democrat. It is a very special language — very different from the dialect we Israelis speak,” Dani Dayan, Israel’s former consul general in New York, tweeted.

The state of play: Erdan’s challenge will be even harder because he'll be juggling two jobs: He's also Israel's ambassador to the UN and lives with his family in New York.

  • After assuming office, Erdan is likely to spend three days a week in Washington. The slowdown of UN activity due to COVID-19 should make it easier for Erdan to manage both jobs.
  • Worth noting: The last Israeli diplomat to hold both posts was the legendary Abba Eban in the 1950s.

Erdan is spending this week in meetings with Dermer in Washington to prepare for the job, an Israeli official said.

  • He has met with several senior Democrats in New York, and he'll likely make his first priority forging ties with Democrats.
  • Erdan posted a photo with Biden on Facebook. It was from several years ago when they met on the train to Washington. Biden was then the vice president and Erdan was a minister in the Israeli government.
  • “We had a great conversation. Things changed a bit since then, but I will do the utmost to bring the U.S.-Israeli relations to a new height," Erdan wrote.

What to watch: Although he is right wing in most of his positions, Erdan hopes his work on climate change as environment minister will help him connect with Democrats, an Israeli official told me.

4. Bibi barometer: Another roll of the dice?

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

Israel's chances of yet another early election continue to grow.

Why it matters: Members of both Netanyahu's Likud party and Benny Gantz's Blue and White tell me the Netanyahu-Gantz power sharing government is close to a point of no return.

  • An announcement about new elections could come within weeks, though they wouldn't take place until March — several weeks after Biden's inauguration.
  • Both Netanyahu and Gantz were waiting for the U.S. election results before making any decisions about the future of their government, which was formed six months ago.

Driving the news: Concerned by possible domestic fallout from Trump's loss, Netanyahu is focusing his public messages on the close relationship he built with Joe Biden over 40 years.

  • In a speech at the Knesset on Tuesday, Netanyahu spent 10 minutes describing his relationship with Democrats and said he had met 134 congressional Democrats during Trump's term. He circulated the list to all Knesset members.

The state of play: In 45 days, the Israeli government has to either pass a budget or parliament will be dissolved.

  • Gantz offered Netanyahu an ultimatum: He'd only approve the 2020 budget if the 2021 budget was also passed this year, locking in the government for long enough that he will rotate in as prime minister as planned next November.
  • Gantz might be willing to back down from his ultimatum, but many members of his party will urge him not to compromise.
  • Netanyahu appears ambivalent. He says he doesn't want new elections but isn't engaging in meaningful negotiations to avoid them.

By the numbers: Netanyahu has managed to stop the bleeding in the polls, and his party appears stable with a projected 28-29 seats. A potential right-wing bloc is projected to win a majority with 65 seats.

  • Yes, but: Netanyahu's main political rival, right-winger Naftali Bennett, has nearly caught up to Netanyahu in terms of favorability.

What’s next: In the last three election cycles, Netanyahu was received by
Trump at the White House shortly before election day.

  • He'd likely love to get a photo with Biden in the Oval Office too, but it's unclear whether Biden would agree.
5. Saeb Erekat (1955–2020)

Erekat in 2016. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty

Saeb Erekat, an icon of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for three decades, died yesterday at age 65.

Flashback: At age 36, he arrived with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at the opening ceremony of the 1991 Madrid peace conference wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh.

  • When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went berserk and threatened to leave, Secretary of State Jim Baker stepped in and insisted Erekat could wear whatever he liked.

Since that time, Erekat had been one of the only stable things in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and took part in every round of talks.

  • Erekat established the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s negotiations department and was a human archive of the peace process.
  • He obsessively documented every detail in every meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
  • Many Israeli and American negotiators came and went, but he was always there.
  • Erekat’s American and Israeli counterparts knew he had access to every piece of relevant information — in his head or in the files in his office — much of which they didn’t have.

Erekat was a champion of the two-state solution and rejected violence and terrorism.

  • He did his fighting in the negotiation rooms and on CNN.

Behind the scenes: Israeli and U.S. negotiators who worked with Erekat over the years describe him as a Palestinian patriot and a tough partner.

  • One Israeli official who knew him intimately told me Erekat never hesitated to say no to U.S. presidents — from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump.
  • As one Israeli official put it: “Saeb was a pain in the ass, but he fought for what he believed in.”
  • Netanyahu complained about him to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He even tried several times to push Erekat out or circumvent him through backchannels — but Erekat always managed to stay in the game.

After Kerry’s peace initiative failed in 2014, Erekat started to become disillusioned with the peace process and began pushing for unilateral Palestinian measures in international institutions.

  • When Trump assumed office, he gave it another chance. He claimed to have met Trump and his advisers 37 times.
  • His last meeting at the White House was in December 2017 — a few days before Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Palestinians cut ties with the U.S. government.

In the last three years, Erekat grew bitter.

  • He called for dismantling the Palestinian Authority and throwing the keys to Israel so it would have to take full responsibility for its occupation in the West Bank.
  • In our conversations in recent months, he told me he felt there was nobody left to talk to in Jerusalem and in Washington.

The bottom line: Erekat spent his whole life working to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but never got to see peace. It’s hard to see who can replace him.