July 07, 2021

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, reporting from a contributor in the region and the latest in Israeli politics. Today's edition is 1,926 words, a 7-minute read.

🚨 Situational Awareness: King Abdullah II of Jordan is expected to visit the White House on July 19, according to Jordanian media reports. He would be the first Arab leader to visit Biden's White House. The king plans to arrive in the U.S. on Thursday and spend three weeks in America.

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1 big thing: Bennett to set new Iran policy before Biden meeting

Bennett. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has launched an Iran policy review to be concluded before his first meeting with President Biden, which is likely to take place in late July, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Bennett is in the process of shifting Israeli foreign policy on several fronts, with a particular focus on the Iran file. While Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu are both Iran hawks, Bennett is considering taking Israeli policy in a new direction.

The primary debate is whether Israel is genuinely better off in the current scenario — with no deal and with Iran accelerating its nuclear program — than with both the U.S. and Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, an Israeli official tells Axios:

“There are several questions in the discussions — is the current treading water better or worse than a U.S. return to the deal, if and how Israel can influence the Biden administration, and what the current situation means for developing an Israeli military option."

Driving the news: Bennett has already convened several meetings on Iran ahead of a wide-ranging policy review that includes the nuclear issue but also Israeli policy toward Iran’s regional behavior, Israeli officials say.

  • Bennett's immediate priority was to get up to speed on the latest intelligence and developments, including on the technical aspects of the Iranian nuclear program, in order to be fully informed when discussing Iran with other world leaders, especially Biden.
  • On Sunday, Bennett convened the first policy meeting on the Iran nuclear deal with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the heads of the security and intelligence services. Several additional meetings will take place in order to complete the review before the meeting with Biden.
  • One change is already clear: Bennett wants to avoid a public clash with the Biden administration. Bennett believes the daylight between Netanyahu and Biden on Iran projected Israeli strategic weakness in the region and didn’t serve any reasonable purpose, an Israeli official says.

The big picture: The new Israeli government has already made several other initial foreign policy shifts.

  • Bennett has been working to repair relations with Jordan, which were deeply damaged during the Netanyahu era, including by quickly approving a deal to provide Jordan with additional water.
  • Bennett moved to block the transfer of cash from Qatar to Hamas after the latest fighting in the Gaza Strip and is insisting it be transferred via the UN, through banks or directly to people in need. The Gulf country has provided hundreds of millions of dollars since 2018 in an attempt to stabilize Gaza.
  • Bennett quickly approved a vaccine deal with the Palestinian Authority that Netanyahu had held up for months. He was disappointed when the deal collapsed, Israeli officials say, because he'd seen a positive first step in relations.
    • The PA called off the vaccine deal after determining the doses were too close to their expiration date.

What’s next: Lapid will travel to Brussels next week, where EU foreign ministers will be gathering for a monthly meeting. His message will be that Israel wants to strengthen relations with the EU after years of tensions with Netanyahu.

2. Bennett's point person with the White House

Photo: Courtesy of Shimrit Meir

Bennett has made foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir his primary point of contact to the White House, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Meir is expected to play a role similar to the one played under Netanyahu by former ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer.

  • Like Dermer, who was once dubbed "Bibi’s brain," Meir is a close confidant of the prime minister, who relies on her advice on the most sensitive foreign policy files.
  • Unlike Dermer, she is viewed as a centrist and has emphasized the need to "turn a page" from Netanyahu and ensure Israel maintains good relations with both parties in Washington. She wrote in an article published shortly before Bennett took office that “Israel can’t be the Middle East branch of the Republican party like it has been in recent years."
  • Meir is the first woman to serve as the top foreign policy adviser to an Israeli prime minister.

Behind the scenes: Meir's relationship with the right-wing Bennett started after the 2014 Gaza war, and they met occasionally since then to exchange views on foreign policy, Israeli officials say.

  • While negotiating the coalition deal that made him prime minister, Bennett asked her to consider becoming his foreign policy adviser.

Meir, 41, served in Israeli military intelligence and then worked as a journalist focusing on the Arab world and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

  • She worked for several years for The Israel Project, an American advocacy organization, and in 2013, she founded a news website in Arabic called Al-Masdar (“The Source”) that worked under the Israel Project and later went independent. It shut down in 2019.
  • Before joining the government, Meir was a columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Driving the news: Bennett informed the White House that Meir would be his point of contact, and she has been working with senior Biden aides, primarily White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, Israeli officials say.

  • Her main priorities are Iran, the Palestinian issue and relations with the Biden administration, the Israeli officials say. She has also been working to coordinate Bennett's first visit to the White House, likely in late July.

3. The view from Amman: Awaiting a verdict in royal sedition case

Bassem Awadallah in 2006. Photo: Joseph Barrak/AFP via Getty

A verdict will land on Monday for the primary defendant in a sedition case that has shaken Jordan over the last three months, Daoud Kuttab writes for Axios.

Driving the news: Bassem Awadallah, a former chief of Jordan's royal court who is also close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stands accused of conspiring with Jordan's former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein to destabilize the kingdom. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer tells Axios he is already preparing for an appeal.

The backstory: Jordanian officials originally described the alleged plot as a coup attempt. Now they say it was a broader plot involving other countries.

  • Jordanian media outlets last month published a purported confession in which Awadallah reportedly wrote that Prince Hamzah had expressed frustration and criticism of the king in private meetings and "was seeking my advice because I was the chief of the royal court in Jordan and I am now close to senior Saudi officials."
  • Prince Hamzah is front and center in both the charge sheet and in Awadallah’s statement, but he is immune from prosecution as a result of an agreement sponsored by Prince Hassan bin Talal, the king's uncle.

Driving the news: A recent Washington Post opinion piece, citing a Jordanian intelligence report, linked the palace intrigue in Jordan to a push by the Trump administration and Israel to win Saudi backing for Donald Trump's Middle East peace proposal.

  • The plan would have required King Abdullah II to change his policy on Jordanian custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem, which he refused to do.
  • According to the intelligence report, a low-profile Jordanian royal named Sharif Hassan bin Zaid met with officials at a foreign embassy in 2019 to "inquire about their country’s position on supporting Prince Hamzah as an alternative to the King." Bin Zaid is also currently on trial in the sedition case.

What they're saying: Awadallah’s lawyer, Mohammad Afifi, questioned the fairness of the trial before the state security court and told Axios that if the decision is not in favor of his client, he will appeal to the regular appeals court.

  • Afifi, himself a former chief judge at the state security court, says that while he continues to believe in the need for a security court, the fact that it was formed by the executive and not the judicial branch makes it unable "to accomplish the international criteria for justice that the court display independence and impartiality."
  • Afifi, who submitted a 34-page closing argument on Tuesday, also said his client was in good spirits.

Worth noting: Afifi's request to call 25 individuals, including three princes, to testify was rejected. The court argued that the witnesses’ testimonies would not be productive, Axios has learned.

What’s next: If found guilty, Awadallah would face a minimum prison term of five years and a maximum of 30.

4. Iran's nuclear limbo continues as inauguration approaches

Raisi's opening press conference. Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

With Iran crossing another threshold toward a potential nuclear weapon, the U.S. is still waiting for Tehran's response to proposals made in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, U.S. and European officials say.

Why it matters: Big gaps remain after six rounds of nuclear talks. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on Tuesday that Iran has taken the unprecedented step of beginning to produce enriched uranium metal — a vital step toward developing nuclear weapons.

State of play: There is just one month left before the inauguration of new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi.

  • It's unclear if a deal will be possible before then, as the U.S. had hoped, or even when the seventh round of talks will take place.

The big picture: As with Iran's other recent violations of the 2015 deal, the U.S. and its European allies have refrained from taking any steps over the uranium metal announcement beyond issuing statements.

What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Ned Price called it “an unfortunate step backwards for Iran" that wouldn't gain Iran any leverage in negotiations, but stressed that "the window for diplomacy remains open."

  • U.S. officials reject claims that the nuclear talks are stalled and say the Iranians are in the middle of their internal consultation process. 
  • The U.K., France and Germany issued a joint statement on Tuesday warning that Iran was "threatening a successful outcome to the Vienna talks despite the progress achieved in six rounds of negotiations."

What’s next: “Everybody is basically waiting for the Iranians," a European diplomat told me.

5. PA under pressure over activist's death

A protest on Saturday in Ramallah. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

The Palestinian Authority is engaged in damage control as domestic and international criticism over the killing of political activist Nizar Banat continues to pile up.

Why it matters: Banat died two weeks ago while being arrested by Palestinian security forces. Palestinian activists say it's part of a wider autocratic trend that has even members of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party expressing concern in private.

Driving the news: Several people were arrested Monday in Ramallah during protests, which have continued for two weeks though the numbers have dwindled.

  • The protests focused also on the arrest of journalist Alaa Rimawi in connection with a speech he gave at Banat’s funeral.
  • PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ordered the police to release the protesters who were detained on Monday, and Rimawi was moved to house arrest on Tuesday after three days in jail.
  • Palestinian security forces didn’t intervene in several protests that took place in the West Bank on Tuesday. The Palestinian press has also been unusually critical of the government in its coverage of the protests.

Behind the scenes: Diplomats from 20 European countries held an unusual meeting with the director of Palestinian intelligence Majed Faraj and demanded clarifications on Banat's case and the conduct of the Palestinian security forces, Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported.

  • U.S. diplomats including George Noll, the head of the Palestinian affairs unit at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, held several conversations this week with Palestinian officials and pressed them on reforms like amending emergency laws and strengthening oversight of the security services, U.S. officials told me.

What to watch: The protests in the West Bank have been the most significant in several years, and the PA's legitimacy crisis is growing after yet another election was postponed this spring.

  • On Tuesday evening, in an apparent attempt to turn attention to other issues, the Palestinian government released the conclusions of an investigation into the canceled vaccine deal with Israel.