Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.

November 18, 2020

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • We're looking this week at Joe Biden's potential Middle East team, at an Israeli effort to help shape his Iran policies and at how the UAE views the new administration (1,878 words, 7 minutes).
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1 big thing: Israel's plan to influence Biden on Iran

Illustration of a silhouette of Biden standing in front of the U.S., Iran, and Israel flags

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Israel is drafting a strategy for engaging with the incoming Biden administration on Iran, two Israeli officials tell me.

What they're saying: “We don’t want to be left out again," Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset foreign relations committee in a classified hearing last week. He said Israel had to avoid the mistakes that left it isolated as the Obama administration negotiated the 2015 Iran deal.

  • Ashkenazi said Israel's hardline approach made it almost irrelevant to the process and left it without any influence on the deal's contents, two officials who attended the hearing told me.
  • Where things stand: Biden's plan is to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance and then attempt to negotiate a broader, longer-lasting agreement.

Flashback: During the negotiations between 2013–2015, Israel hardly attempted to reach any understandings with the White House about the deal and instead campaigned against it.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went behind Barack Obama's back to then-House Speaker John Boehner to organize a speech in Congress opposing the deal.

What's happening: The Israeli Foreign Ministry has formed a special team, led by Ashkenazi, to focus on how Israel can remain in the loop and influence any negotiations the Biden administration might have with Iran, Israeli officials say.

  • Ashkenazi told the hearing that the team's goal is to make sure any future nuclear deal with Iran contains elements that are important for Israel.
  • In his view, that means convincing Biden to link the nuclear issue to Iran's missile program and regional behavior.

Behind the scenes: According to the officials who attended the classified hearing, Ashkenazi said the Foreign Ministry thinks the Biden administration will follow through on Biden's plan to push for a renewed nuclear deal.

  • But he added that he believes Biden’s team is aware that the 2015 deal had weaknesses and will try to address them.
  • Ashkenazi said the Foreign Ministry has already made preliminary contacts with members of the Biden transition team to establish channels of communication.

Yes, but: The current Israeli government is dysfunctional and fractured. Ashkenazi is considered one of Netanyahu’s main political opponents, and they have significant policy differences, including on Iran.

  • It's unclear if Netanyahu shares Ashkenazi’s views on how to engage with the Biden administration.
  • Netanyahu’s closest confidant, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, said Monday that it would be a mistake for Biden to go back to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Worth noting: Ashkenazi said in the hearing that the Iranians were preparing to renew talks with whoever won the U.S. elections, and he added: “We don’t know with which U.S. administration the deal would have been more problematic for us."

2. The view from Abu Dhabi: Taking things one president at a time

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Photo: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

For Emirati leaders, President-elect Joe Biden is a known quantity, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National, writes from Abu Dhabi.

Why it matters: Unlike four years ago, there will not be an expectation of a new president coming in with a blank slate.

  • In 2016, Emirati officials felt there were important changes of course required, such as on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which they opposed.

No one here is bracing for a 180-degree turn from Biden.

  • Emirati officials think Biden will not likely rush to dismantle the "sanctions wall" being built around Tehran.
  • They hope he will embrace the momentum sparked by the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel.
  • More complicated for the Emiratis are the planned U.S. troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan and future efforts to combat ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The big picture: Biden is expected to take a more collaborative role with European allies on the most important issues for the UAE and the region, such as Iran, Turkey and the threat from extremist groups.

  • His overall approach will hopefully provide for less volatility, supporting global stability, international trade and stable oil prices. 

Where things stand: Biden's team limited its contacts with any foreign officials during the campaign. Now the coronavirus pandemic and ensuring a smooth transition from President Donald Trump’s administration will set the tone ahead of Biden's inauguration.

  • The UAE immediately made clear its desire to work closely with Biden and Kamala Harris once they take office. It will also have existing relationships with key Democrats from the last four years to build upon. 
  • But until Jan. 20, the UAE will likely maintain a polite distance from the incoming administration.

In the meantime, Trump has signaled that he still has unfinished business in the region.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be in the UAE this week as part of a wider tour.
  • Last week, Iran envoy Elliott Abrams visited Abu Dhabi and Riyadh for meetings with senior officials.

What to watch: Helping smooth a recent deal to buy F-35 fighter jets through Congress’ review process will be a priority over the next month for the UAE. But Emirati leaders will deal with what is immediately in front of them rather than thinking too far ahead. 

3. Between the lines on Biden's calls to Israel

Biden with Rivlin in 2016. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Biden spoke on the phone Tuesday with Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. His call with Rivlin was congratulatory in nature, but it also foreshadowed what the U.S.-Israel relationship will look like in the new administration.

Why it matters: Trump and his top advisers worked almost solely with Netanyahu and had very little contact with other political players in Israel. Biden’s call with Rivlin shows Netanyahu will no longer have a monopoly on contacts with the White House.

The big picture: There is a lot of political bad blood between Rivlin and Netanyahu.

  • Netanyahu pushed Rivlin out as speaker of the Knesset and later lobbied against his run for president.
  • However, Rivlin had a very close relationship with Obama when he was president and with Biden when he was vice president.

Between the lines: There were several differences between Biden's and Netanyahu's readouts of their call.

  • Netanyahu said he and Biden agreed to meet as soon as possible. Biden didn’t mention any such agreement.
  • Unlike Netanyahu's readout, Biden’s referred to his commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state — a subtle reference to his support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Biden’s readout also said the president-elect was determined to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship enjoys strong bipartisan support. Netanyahu's didn't.

Worth noting: Biden hasn’t called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yet.

  • Biden’s advisers say he will call Abbas, but he'll do so separately from his calls with Israeli leaders — probably as part of a series of calls with Arab leaders.
  • Flashback: Obama spoke on his first day in office to Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as to the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan.

Go deeper: Tracking Biden's first calls to world leaders

4. Scoop: Senators urge Trump to label West Bank goods “Made in Israel”

Sen. Tom Cotton. Photo: Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

A group of Republican senators led by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a letter to President Trump this week urging him to issue an executive order allowing goods produced in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be labeled “Made in Israel." Axios obtained a copy of the letter.

Why it matters: While the rest of the world views the settlements as illegal under international law and not part of Israel, the Trump administration has taken several steps intended to legitimize them and blur the differentiation between Israel and the West Bank.

  • The letter — signed by Sens. Cotton, Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) — pushes the administration to issue the order before Jan. 20.

The letter was sent to Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

  • The senators warned that a Biden administration would return to a policy of differentiating between Israel and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
  • That would make goods from the settlements “prime targets for BDS boycotts," they wrote, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.


  • Since 1967, all previous U.S. administrations had treated the West Bank and Golan Heights as occupied territory and the settlements as illegitimate.
  • In 1995, after the Oslo Accords were signed and the Palestinian Authority was formed, the Clinton administration issued guidelines that required goods from the settlements to be labeled as “made in the West Bank." The guidelines were not really enforced.
  • In 2016, the Obama administration republished the guidelines and warned that labeling settlement goods as “Made in Israel” could lead to fines. This was seen at the time as a diplomatic signal to Israel over settlement expansions.

What they're saying: The senators claimed that the UN and prominent members of the Democratic Party support BDS and seek to damage Israel economically.

  • “Your administration should undo these misguided Clinton-era guidelines. …This decision would support Israel and push back against anti-Semitism and the BDS movement," they wrote.

What to watch: The move would put another hurdle in place for Biden if, as expected, he seeks to roll back Trump's policies on settlements.

Driving the news: Pompeo is expected to be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank tomorrow.

Go deeper: Pompeo's unprecedented trip

5. What to watch: Biden's Middle East team

Biden visits Jordan in 2016. Photo: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP via Getty

Biden and his team are in the early stages of staffing his administration, and I've been sounding out my sources on who is expected to handle Middle East policy at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon.

The state of play: Nothing is set in stone, but several people in Biden's foreign policy circle said they expect many of the senior staffers to be veterans of the Obama administration.

Driving the news: Biden’s review team for the State Department included three Middle East experts, in a likely sign they'll have roles in the new administration.

  • Puneet Talwar was a top Middle East adviser to Barack Obama and helped open talks with Iran prior to the nuclear deal. He later served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs under John Kerry.
  • Hady Amr was the deputy special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under Kerry, focusing on economic issues. More recently, he worked at the Brookings Institution.
  • Dana Stroul was a Middle East adviser at the Pentagon under secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, and she later served as a Middle East adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She's now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Several other Obama-era officials are also likely to play a role in the new administration.

  • Robert Malley, Obama's senior Middle East adviser and now the CEO of the International Crisis Group, is mentioned as a possible Iran negotiator in the new administration.
  • Dan Shapiro, who was senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council and later served six years as ambassador to Israel, is a likely candidate for a senior post in Washington or, potentially, to return for a second stint as ambassador.
  • Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs under Hillary Clinton, is also a candidate for a senior post on the Middle East.
  • Dafna Hochman Rand, one of Wittes’ successors, is also mentioned as a likely appointment.
  • Mara Rudman, who was Middle East director at USAID during the Obama administration and advised the Biden campaign on Middle East policy, is also a likely pick.

Three other names that I've heard floated for senior roles:

  • Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Kerry's Middle East peace team and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • Andrew Miller, who worked on Middle East issues on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
  • Daniel Benaim, who was Biden’s Middle East adviser when he was vice president.

The bottom line: 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.