Jun 30, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This edition (1,609 words; 6 minutes) is coming to you from Abu Dhabi, where I traveled this week with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

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1 big thing: UAE foreign minister says peace with Israel will move forward

Bin Zayed (left) greets Lapid in Abu Dhabi Tuesday. Photo: Government Press Office of Israel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed told me in an exclusive interview on Tuesday he is convinced that relations with Israel will continue to move forward regardless of the change of government in Jerusalem.

Why it matters: This was the first interview bin Zayed has given to an Israeli journalist. The interview took place on the sidelines of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid's visit here, the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the UAE since the signing of the peace treaty between the countries in September.

What he's saying: “I was concerned Israelis are going to go through a phase of looking inwards and wasting the current momentum. But I think Lapid’s first call to anyone was to me," bin Zayed said.

  • He called the new relationship with Israel "an exciting relationship" and said he is "not concerned about the change of government."
  • "What really amazed me is the excitement and how long it has lasted, and having a new Israeli government which is equally excited tells me that this is a much broader political belief and willingness to invest in the relationship."

Driving the news: Lapid arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday and inaugurated the Israeli Embassy there. Later, he met with bin Zayed for the first time and signed an agreement on finance and trade cooperation.

  • On Wednesday, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s consulate in Dubai and visited the Israeli pavilion at the Dubai Expo, which will begin in October. The pavilion is the biggest one Israel has ever built.
  • Bin Zayed told me the Expo will be the next big opportunity in the new relationship between Israel and the UAE. “It will be the first-ever Expo in the Middle East, and it gives a great platform for Israel,” he said.

The big picture: He told me he hopes the Biden administration will continue pushing the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.

  • He said he was happy that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the term “Abraham Accords” in their conversations, but expressed frustration that the Biden administration doesn’t use publicly the name given to the agreements by the Trump administration.

What’s next: The Emirati foreign minister said the big challenge of the normalization process is how to get the Palestinians into the game. He said Israel should work on improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza and avoid irresponsible steps in Jerusalem to prevent a new escalation.

  • But most of all, he said, Israel should try to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as a partner.
  • “I believe that sooner or later, Israel would have to solve the Palestinian issue. ... This is a big challenge for you,” bin Zayed said.

Go deeper.

2. The view from Abu Dhabi

Lapid (left) talks with UAE Minister of State Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh in Abu Dhabi Tuesday. Photo: Israeli Prime Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The grand vision of the Abraham Accords, which are based on tolerance and interfaith coexistence, is being tested by developments since the agreement was signed on Sept. 15, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National, writes from Abu Dhabi.

The big picture: While normal ties were quickly developed between the UAE and Israel, including establishing embassies and commercial activity in sectors such as health care and aviation, other points of the accord have not followed at a similar pace. 

  • For example, the agreement stresses the importance of negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the need to meet the latter’s goals and aspirations. 
  • Moving this forward was always going to require momentum to be built across the region, which many hoped the Abraham Accords, with the UAE and other Arab countries, would help provide.  

The escalation of police violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem, followed by the 11 days of fighting in May between Israel and the militant group Hamas that left Gaza destroyed and at least 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, has underscored the size of that task.       

  • The resulting consensus here is that there is an urgent need to find a just and comprehensive solution for the Palestinians and to stop their suffering. In addition, keeping Jerusalem a safe place for all is viewed as paramount.  
  • After the ceasefire, the UAE leadership made clear that there was a need for additional efforts toward preventing further escalation and achieving peace, and that it was ready to support such efforts.     
3. Interview: Palestinian activist calls on Biden to challenge Abbas

Issa Amro. Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration needs to put more pressure on the Palestinian Authority over its human rights abuses and anti-democratic steps, prominent Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro told me in an interview.

What he's saying: “Palestinian Authority officials say internally that they are protected by the U.S. so they can do whatever they want. They feel nobody will try to hold them accountable and nobody will demand them to take steps toward reform and democracy," Amro told me.

Driving the news: The death of well-known activist Nizar Banat last Thursday during his arrest by the Palestinian intelligence services has led to a strong domestic backlash against the PA.

  • Amro, who had been arrested two days earlier for posts on social media criticizing the government, said he fears he could be in danger.
"People tell me I could be Nizar Banat No. 2."
— Issa Amro

The latest: The PA formed a commission of inquiry amid sharp international criticism over Banat's death.

  • Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said he expects the results next week, and he stressed that the government was committed to democratic values, freedom of speech and the rule of law.
  • But security forces have cracked down during protests over the incident in several West Bank cities — with videos emerging online of journalists and protesters being intimidated or beaten up — and President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party staged a show of force at counter-rallies featuring armed militia members.

The State Department issued a statement after Banat's death calling for a transparent investigation and criticizing the PA for restrictions on freedom of expression and the harassment of civil society activists.

  • In addition, State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said Tuesday the U.S. is "deeply disturbed" by the reports that non-uniformed members of the PA security forces both harassed and used force against protesters and journalists over the weekend. 
  • But Amro said the U.S. has not done enough.

His bottom line: "There is not going to be a serious investigation. The U.S. should call for reform in the Palestinian Authority and for holding accountable whoever was involved in the killing of Nizar," Amro said.

4. Israel asks U.S. to hold off on reopening Jerusalem consulate

Netanyahu (right) discussed the issue with Blinken in May. Photo: Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty

Israel Foreign Ministry officials have been lobbying the State Department to hold off on reopening the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem to avoid creating difficulties for the new government, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel's new government contains an unstable mix of parties with opposing views, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the consulate issue to portray the government as weak and unable to stand up to the Biden administration.

The backstory: The consulate served as the primary U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians until 2019, when the Trump administration merged it into the new U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. Biden has promised to reopen it.

  • But the Israeli Foreign Ministry has asked the State Department to hold off until at least after the summer to give the new government more time to stabilize.
  • Israeli officials say they believe the Biden administration understands the situation, won't press on this issue for now and may revisit it in September.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Flashback: Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with Netanyahu during his visit to Israel in May, when Netanyahu was in his final weeks as prime minister.

  • Netanyahu asked Blinken to open the consulate in Ramallah or in the Abu Dis suburb of Jerusalem but not in the city itself, Israeli officials say.
  • When Blinken pushed back and said the U.S. would reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, Netanyahu replied, “You are going to help me score political points," according to officials briefed on the meeting.
5. Morocco plans to upgrade Israel ties

Bourita (center) with Jared Kushner (left) last year. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty

Morocco plans to conclude its normalization process with Israel by turning its diplomatic liaison office in Tel Aviv into an official embassy in the near future, sources familiar with the issue told me.

Why it matters: This could be the first tangible achievement in the Biden administration's efforts to advance the Trump-era normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab world.

The big picture: Morocco renewed its diplomatic relations with Israel as part of a three-way deal in which the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.

  • But the Moroccans stopped short of full diplomatic relations with Israel, preferring the mutual opening of diplomatic liaison offices instead of embassies — and potentially retaining bargaining chips should the next administration consider rolling back the Western Sahara decision.

Driving the news: Brett McGurk, President Biden’s top Middle East adviser, spoke on the phone several days ago with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and confirmed that the Biden administration is not planning to roll back Trump's Western Sahara step, sources familiar with the call say.

  • McGurk asked Bourita to support the appointment of a UN envoy for Western Sahara to renew the diplomatic process on the issue and to move forward with the normalization process with Israel.
  • Worth noting: Neither Western Sahara nor normalization with Israel was mentioned in the U.S. and Moroccan readouts of Blinken's meeting with Bourita in Rome on Monday.

What’s next: In July, three Israeli airlines are expected to start direct flights from Tel Aviv to several destinations in Morocco. Tens of thousands of Israelis are expected to travel there during the summer.

  • The Moroccans are planning to announce the embassy decision soon, the sources said. The Moroccan Foreign Ministry declined to comment.