Jan 20, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • It's Inauguration Day in the U.S., and we're starting with Iran's plans for engaging with Joe Biden over the nuclear deal (1,882 words, 7 minutes).
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1 big thing: Iran's "road map" for nuclear talks with Biden

Khamenei earlier this month. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Iran has been accumulating bargaining chips and laying out its strategy for engagement with Joe Biden, who arrives in office promising to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance.

Why it matters: Recent statements from Iran's leaders indicate that they're willing to strike such a deal. But the sides differ over who will have to make the first move, and when.

The big picture: Returning to the deal would require Iran to roll back its recent nuclear acceleration and the U.S. to lift sanctions. Biden views that as the baseline from which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting agreement.

  • Secretary of State designate Tony Blinken reiterated that in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, but said the incoming administration was "a long way" from returning to the deal.
  • Iran's presidential elections in June will loom large over any timeline.

What's happening: Anticipating negotiations, the Iranians have taken or threatened several steps designed to build leverage, most notably by producing 20% enriched uranium in a clear breach of the deal's terms.

  • Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the speaker of Iran's parliament, said this was done "to produce strength in the area of diplomacy." He added that Europe's immediate engagement on the issue showed the strategy was working.
  • Next, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency it intended to start producing uranium metal, which can be used to develop nuclear warheads.
  • Perhaps most ominously, the Iranians are threatening to limit inspectors' access to their nuclear facilities at the beginning of February.

Driving the news: In a speech on Jan. 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid out his position, saying Iran doesn’t trust the U.S. and is in no rush.

  • But he added that if Biden lives up to America's commitments, Iran will do the same.

In the ensuing days, a series of very senior Iranian officials — all members of a committee that oversees the nuclear deal — echoed that message in “interviews” published on Khamenei’s official website, in what seemed to be an orchestrated show of unity.

  • The officials were: Qalibaf; Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; Khamenei advisers Ali Larijani and Ali Akbar Velayati; Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi; former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi; and former national security adviser Saeed Jalili.

What they're saying: The officials repeatedly referred to a "road map" of steps both sides should take. It begins with the U.S. lifting sanctions.

  • The officials said they'd treat an announcement from Biden on returning to the deal as meaningless unless it comes with sanctions relief.
  • “If Mr. Biden signs an executive order, we will sign one too. Whenever he puts it into action, we will put ours into action as well," Zarif said.
  • Iran wants sanctions lifted in one comprehensive action and not in a gradual step-by-step process. Larijani, a likely leading presidential candidate, said the U.S. won’t fool Iran with “a piece of candy."

The highest priorities for Iran are the lifting of sanctions on oil exports and the Iranian banking system, as well as the unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad.

  • “We should be able to carry out our economic dealings normally and easily — be that imports or exports," Qalibaf said in one of the interviews. 

After both sides return to compliance, Iran said it is ready for further negotiations on a nuclear deal 2.0.

  • As part of these negotiations, Iran will demand compensation for damages it has suffered as a result of Trump's withdrawal.
  • Another condition for future negotiations is the cancellation of the snapback mechanism that allows the U.S. or other parties to the deal to quickly renew UN sanctions on Iran.
  • According to Zarif, Iran will demand that the U.S. take steps to guarantee that a new administration won't unravel the next deal as Trump did the previous one.

What's next: Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, says the Iranians won't renegotiate the 2015 deal or return to compliance without sanctions relief.

  • But, he said, they could agree to an interim deal in which the U.S. lifts most of the sanctions in return for Iran rolling back most of its nuclear advancements since 2019.
  • “In any case, Khamenei won’t compromise on the principled positions he laid out because doing that would be like admitting that Trump’s maximum pressure policy worked," Zimmt said.
2. Bibi Barometer: Lincoln Project becomes "Never Netanyahu"

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

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his main rival, Gideon Saar, will both have Republican strategists running their campaigns ahead of the elections on March 23.

Why it matters: The competition between Netanyahu and Saar’s American advisers will be an extension of the rivalry inside the Republican Party between the pro-Trump and "never Trump" camps. 

Driving the news: Saar recruited Republican consultants Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Stuart Stevens and Reed Galen, whose Lincoln Project aimed to push Republican voters away from Donald Trump.

  • They'll now attempt to push Israeli right-wing voters away from Netanyahu to the New Hope party founded by Saar, who left Likud over his rivalry with Netanyahu.
  • The news was first reported by Israel’s Channel 12 and confirmed to me by one of Saar's aides.
  • The state of play: Saar has had limited success so far. Polls show his party with 15 seats vs. 30 for Netanyahu and Likud.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, appointed former Breitbart Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein to run his election campaign. Klein, who has been advising Netanyahu for the last year, worked closely with Steve Bannon during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

  • Netanyahu will also continue working with Trump’s pollster, John McLaughlin.
3. The view from Ramallah: Questions surround elections

Casting a ballot in Gaza in 2006. Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced a date for parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time since 2006, in a move Palestinian officials say was intended in part as a goodwill message to the Biden administration, Abdel-Rauf Arnaout, political reporter for Al-Ayyam, writes from Ramallah.

Driving the news: Abbas' decision was also driven by his wish to end the Palestinian split during his tenure, a senior Palestinian official tells me. While his Fatah party controls the West Bank, the Gaza Strip is controlled by bitter rival Hamas.

  • By holding elections, Abbas hopes to boost the stalled peace process and the push for a Palestinian state. The official added that Abbas was also under pressure from Europe to hold the long-awaited elections. 
  • The other side: Hamas' feeling that Fatah is weak led the militant group to agree to hold the elections, in addition to the group's regional isolation and the difficulty of its 15-year rule in Gaza.

Flashback: In the 2006 elections for the 132-seat legislative council — which includes members from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — Hamas won 74 seats to 45 for Fatah.

  • The rest went to other Palestine Liberation Organization factions and independents.
  • Fatah never recognized the victory of its staunch political rivals. In the ensuing crisis, Hamas orchestrated a military coup in Gaza.

What’s next: Representatives from Fatah and Hamas will meet in Cairo next month. One issue Fatah wants to raise is the possibility of running on a joint electoral list with Hamas as well as members from other PLO factions and independents, according to a senior Fatah official.

  • Senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub told me that Fatah leaders hadn't discussed that idea, but "all issues will be open for discussion on the table in Cairo."
  • “Hamas told us it is ready to discuss it," another Fatah leader said.
  • It remains to be seen whether senior Fatah officials will reject the idea of a joint list with Hamas and how the results of the Hamas primaries in April will influence the decision-making.
  • While in Cairo, the sides will also discuss issues like security in Gaza, the formation of elections courts, and plans for elections in Jerusalem.

What to watch: If Israel refuses to allow elections to be held in East Jerusalem — as it did in 1996, 2005 and 2006 — that may be used as an excuse by any of the parties to call off the elections.

  • Israel’s objections to Hamas' participation in the elections could also influence the whole process.
  • If Abbas can't unify his party under one list, threats to run on separate lists by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and exiled former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan could cause the movement a big defeat.

Where things stand: Many Palestinians are still skeptical about the elections, saying that though the presidential decree was issued, the devil is in the details.

4. Netanyahu's settlements Hail Mary falls short

Netanyahu will be disappointed to see Trump wave goodbye. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to execute a “Hail Mary” decision to legalize dozens of illegal settler outposts deep in the West Bank one day before Biden’s inauguration. He failed.

Why it matters: The mass legalization of outposts would have been a highly provocative step, broadening Israeli control over land in the West Bank and further reducing the chances of a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Background: Trump dramatically changed U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, offering them new legitimacy and giving Israel a free hand with regards to settlement activity.

  • The Biden administration is expected to return to the traditional U.S. policy of treating settlements as illegitimate and objecting to further construction.

Driving the news: In recent weeks, Netanyahu tried to put several settlement plans in motion before Biden assumes office, knowing it will be more difficult or even impossible later.

  • Earlier this week, Netanyahu pressed Minister of Defense Benny Gantz to agree to pass a Cabinet-level decision to legalize five outposts and lay the groundwork to legalize 40 more.
  • The outposts in question are deep in the West Bank. Some are located in isolated areas in an attempt to prevent Palestinian territorial contiguity.
  • The settler lobby put pressure on Netanyahu in recent weeks to legalize the outposts and also lobbied his Cabinet ministers.

Netanyahu resisted the pressure for a time, but he reversed course as part of his efforts to ensure the support of the settler lobby ahead of the March elections.

  • Israel's Ministry of Justice opposed the move because Netanyahu's caretaker government is not allowed to make dramatic decisions ahead of the elections.
  • The Foreign Ministry was also opposed, arguing the step would be seen as a provocative and defiant move 24 hours before Biden’s inauguration and create tensions with the new U.S. administration.
  • Until an hour before the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Netanyahu was still pressing Gantz to agree. Gantz refused and prevented what he called an "irresponsible" move.

Worth noting: Last week, the Israeli government approved plans for 800 new housing units in West Bank settlements — half of them in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank.

  • On Tuesday evening, Israel's land authority began marketing land for the building of 2,600 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

What to watch: In the coming days, the Biden administration will have to publicly articulate its new policy on Israeli settlements. That could renew tensions with the Israeli government.

5. What Blinken said on Middle East policy

Tony Blinken during his confirmation hearing. Photo: Alex Edelman/pool/AFP via Getty

Some quick takeaways from Blinken's confirmation hearing on Tuesday:

  • On Iran: Blinken said Biden is in no rush to return to the 2015 deal and will consult with Israel and the Gulf states before any decision.
  • On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Blinken pledged support for the two-state solution without going into details but admitted he doesn’t see an opening for progress in the short term.
  • On Jerusalem: Blinken said Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the U.S. Embassy will stay there.
  • On the Abraham accords: Blinken welcomed the Trump-brokered normalization agreements but said “there might have been U.S. commitments which were given as part of the agreements that we will have to review," a possible reference to the F-35 deal with the UAE.
  • On Saudi Arabia: Blinken said Saudi airstrikes in Yemen had contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and the U.S. would end its support for the Saudi campaign.
  • On Yemen: Blinken said the Biden administration will immediately review the Trump administration’s decision to designate the Houthi rebels as a terror organization because it makes humanitarian assistance more difficult.
  • On Turkey: Blinken stressed that Biden is clear-eyed about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Turkey is an ally who is not acting as an ally," Blinken said.