Sep 8, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv, and shana tova to all our Jewish readers.

  • Today's edition is 1,901 words, a 7-minute read.
  • Heads-up: We'll be off next week for Yom Kippur.

Situational awareness: U.S. envoy for Iran Rob Malley is holding talks in Moscow today with Russian officials over the stalemate in the Iran nuclear talks. He'll travel next to Paris for talks with his French, German and British counterparts.

1 big thing: Prison break sparks prison riots

The hole the prisoners escaped from. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

With the manhunt for six Palestinian prisoners who tunneled their way out of an Israeli maximum-security prison continuing for the third day, riots have been reported at three additional prisons.

Why it matters: The “Shawshank Redemption” style escape turned the six prisoners into heroes in the West Bank and Gaza, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza threatening an escalation if they are harmed. Thousands of police and Israel Defense Forces soldiers are searching for them.

Driving the news: Two of the three riots reported as of Wednesday afternoon local time included fires, according to the Israel Prison Service. In one case, prisoners from Islamic Jihad allegedly started a fire after guards tried to move them to other prisons.

  • Five of the prisoners are members of the Islamic Jihad militant group and one is from Fatah. Four of them had been serving life sentences.
  • Several family members of the prisoners were arrested in the West Bank by the IDF in an effort to obtain information on their whereabouts.
  • The Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service also began questioning dozens of Islamic Jihad prisoners in different jails to try to find out whether they knew in advance of the escape plot.
  • Palestinian Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh accused Israel of an "unprecedented campaign" of "strict repressive measures" in the prisons.

The initial investigation into the escape revealed serious failures in the prison.

  • The prison was built on concrete posts, leaving space under the cells that prisoners could dig into without anyone noticing.
  • The full plans of the prison were available online for years on the website of the architect who planned the facility.
  • The escape was planned for months, but the prison authorities had no intelligence on the scheme. A day before the prison break, one of the prisoners asked to move into the cell of the other five and was allowed to do so.

The six prisoners, all from the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank, were held in a prison just 10 miles from Jenin.

  • The prison didn’t activate a system to jam mobile phones smuggled into the prison. Israeli officials think the prisoners used a mobile phone during the escape.
  • On the night of the escape, the guard in the watchtower right above the tunnel exit allegedly fell asleep. Moreover, nobody was watching the security cameras that showed the prisoners coming out of the tunnel and running away.
  • Police discovered that two of the prisoners had stopped at a mosque in a nearby Israeli village, took showers, changed their clothes and purchased food at a bakery, all before their escape was discovered.

What's next: Israeli officials are concerned that unrest in the prisons will lead to wider unrest across the West Bank and Gaza, particularly if Hamas and Islamic Jihad decide to escalate the situation in solidarity.

2. Biden's consulate pledge unsettles Bennett's government

Bennett with Biden in the Oval Office. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their White House meeting that he will not abandon his plan to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, setting up a major point of contention between the administrations.

Why it matters: The consulate handled relations with the Palestinians for 25 years before being shut down by Donald Trump. Senior officials in Bennett's government see the consulate issue as a political hot potato that could destabilize their unwieldy coalition.

Behind the scenes: Biden raised the consulate issue several times in his bilateral meeting with Bennett and in the expanded meeting with their aides, Israeli and U.S. officials briefed on the meetings tell me.

  • Biden stressed that he made a campaign promise to reopen it and that Secretary of State Tony Blinken had already gone on the record with a pledge to follow through.
  • Bennett made clear that he opposed that policy, but proposed that officials from both sides meet to work toward a solution.

Between the lines: Several right-wing ministers, including Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, say the reopening of the consulate would be an infringement on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. It's also a prime point of attack for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now opposition leader.

  • The Israeli government would have to give its approval for the consulate to be reopened. And if even one member were to defect over the issue, the government could collapse.
  • “If the Biden administration wants to see Netanyahu abandoning his Pilates classes and going back to the Prime Minister’s Office, this is the best way to do it," one senior official quipped to me.
  • The official said the Israelis had expressed their concerns about the destabilizing potential of the consulate issue several times to the Biden administration.
  • The Biden administration previously agreed to delay the reopening of the consulate until after the Nov. 4 deadline for Bennett to pass a budget.

Flashback: Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and later merged the consulate into the new U.S. Embassy there.

  • The Palestinians also consider Jerusalem to be their capital. East Jerusalem, the location of the former consulate, is typically viewed as the future capital of any Palestinian state.

What they're saying: "Jerusalem is the capital of one country only: Israel. I don’t want to go into details, but this is my clear position," Bennett said last Friday in a Zoom call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

  • But Bennett added that he wants a “no drama” relationship with the Biden administration and to solve things in the quietest way possible after the budget passes in November.
  • The Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry said the government's opposition over the consulate was a barrier to the peace process and part of Israel's efforts "to change the historical and legal status of the city."
  • Last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stressed that Blinken’s commitment, made in May during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, still stands. The White House declined to comment for this story.

What’s next: No steps are expected on this issue before November, meaning the sides have some time to work toward a mutually acceptable solution.

3. Israel won't get a visa waiver anytime soon

Passport control at Dulles Airport. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty

Bennett left Washington with a notable "deliverable": Biden had promised to work toward bringing Israel into the visa waiver program.

Why it matters: Admission to the program has been an Israeli aspiration for decades. The issue resonates with many Israelis who may have family, friends or business connections in the U.S. but are intimidated by the visa process or put off by the costs.

  • Getting a visa waiver would be a huge win for any Israeli prime minister domestically.
  • Yes, but: It's going to be a lot harder than Bennett may have initially thought.

Behind the scenes: Bennett and his advisers saw this issue as a potential tangible achievement from the visit.

  • They asked both the White House and the State Department to include a line about it in their readouts of the meetings with Bennett, Israeli officials say.
  • Israel’s outgoing ambassador in Washington, Gilad Erdan, tried since January to make progress on the issue and advised Bennett to make it a focus of his meetings.

The other side: The U.S. side agreed to include the issue in the readouts as part of its efforts to make the visit a success, and Biden even mentioned it in his public remarks alongside Bennett.

  • But U.S. sources briefed on the matter tell me it was a public gesture, not a sign that there will be news on this issue anytime soon.
  • The main holdup is that in order to enter the visa waiver program, a country must have a very low rate of visa rejections. Israel's rejection rate is too high, and it would likely take 5–10 years to qualify, the U.S. sources said.
  • The U.S. has also long pushed Israel to change its treatment of Arab Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, which has led many Americans to allege harassment, and to allow Palestinian Americans seeking to visit the West Bank to enter through the airport and not through the Allenby border crossing with Jordan.

What’s next: Israeli officials agree the process could take time, but they have been stressing that this was the first time a president had directed his administration to work on the issue.

4. Bennett to make rare public visit to Egypt

Sisi. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Bennett is expected to travel to Egypt next week for the first public visit by an Israeli prime minister in over a decade.

The big picture: Israel officials speculate that by inviting Bennett publicly so early in his term, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government is trying to signal Egypt's importance in the region to the Biden administration.

Flashback: Netanyahu had visited Sisi in secret, and he also met him at the UN General Assembly meeting in 2017.

  • But the last public visit came in 2010 when then-President Hosni Mubarak hosted a summit with Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

What to watch: Other than establishing a personal relationship, the meeting is expected to focus on Gaza.

  • Egypt is engaging both Hamas and Israel to try to stabilize and extend the ceasefire there while also seeking to broker a possible prisoner exchange between the sides.
  • Sisi is also expected to raise Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority and the possibility of a political dialogue of some sort with Abbas. Bennett recently publicly ruled out any such talks.

Worth noting: Ahead of Bennett’s visit, Abbas visited Cairo last week for a trilateral summit with Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan.

  • Sisi also called Israeli President Isaac Herzog earlier this week to convey Rosh Hashanah greetings.
  • Sisi's office released a statement about the call in another sign of Egypt's openness to a more public relationship.
5. Afghan evacuation role boosts Qatar in Washington

Blinken (2nd-R) and Austin (L) with their Qatari counterparts Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani (R) and Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty

Qatar played host Tuesday to both Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in a sign of how the Gulf country's role in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has strengthened its standing in Washington.

Why it matters: Qatar became a central partner for the U.S. in the region as it mediated between the U.S. and the Taliban, and Doha was the largest hub of the massive U.S. evacuation effort.

  • Around 60,000 people were evacuated via Qatar, which even provided several planes for the mission. After the evacuation, the U.S. relocated its diplomatic mission from Kabul to Doha.
  • That came as Qatar was also rebuilding trust with its rivals for regional influence, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
  • Blinken said at a press conference in Doha that Qatar's help would be remembered for "a long, long time" and that the strengthened U.S.-Qatar relationship would pay dividends across "so many key areas in the months and years ahead."

Other Gulf countries — including the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain — also offered the U.S. the use of their territory to transfer and process evacuees, and Blinken has called his counterparts in those countries to thank them.

  • One country that didn't play any notable role was Saudi Arabia, which has cool relations with the Biden administration.

Driving the news: A senior State Department official told me Blinken's discussions in Qatar were dominated by Afghanistan, but also covered the situation in the Gaza Strip.

  • Qatar is playing a key role in the efforts to prevent another war between Israel and Hamas, and it reached a deal recently with Israel and the UN to provide $20 million in monthly humanitarian assistance to Gaza to buy fuel for the power station and provide grants to poor families.
  • Ahead of his talks in Qatar, Blinken spoke by phone with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid about Gaza and the Qatari role.
  • Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh also visited Doha on Tuesday and met with Qatari officials on the situation in Gaza.