June 15, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (2,126 words, 8 minutes) starts with the Israeli and Palestinian hopes for President Biden's visit to the region. It then dives into rising tensions between Israel and Iran before giving an update on the domestic political crisis in Israel.
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1 big thing: Israel hopes Biden visit will improve ties with Saudi Arabia

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a briefing with reporters today that President Biden’s trip to the Middle East could lead to a warming of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which don't have official ties.

Why it matters: Saudi Arabia wasn’t part of the Abraham Accords that were brokered by the Trump administration and led to normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

  • The kingdom supported the accords but made it clear at the time it wouldn't normalize relations with Israel unless there was serious progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Driving the news: Biden is expected to arrive in Israel on July 13.

  • Two days later, he will fly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to meet the Saudi leadership and hold a summit with nine Arab leaders.
  • Ahead of the visit, the Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a potential deal to finalize the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, as Axios first reported.
  • If successful, the mediation efforts could lead to separate normalization steps by Saudi Arabia toward Israel like allowing Israeli airlines to pass through Saudi airspace on their way to India and China.

What they're saying: Lapid said at today's press briefing that Saudi Arabia is the main country Israel wants to join the Abraham Accords. “We want a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia," Lapid told reporters.

  • Nevertheless, Lapid stressed that building the relationship with Saudi Arabia won't be done “in a quantum leap,” but rather through small steps.
  • “The rumors about talks regarding Saudi Arabia are not unfounded," Lapid told reporters. "Everyone is looking at Saudi Arabia these days, and the fact President Biden will fly directly from here to Saudi Arabia signals that there is a connection between the visit here and the visit there and the ability to improve ties" between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

What to watch: Lapid said Biden’s visit to Israel is not conditioned on the domestic political situation in the country. He stressed that he is sure the government will survive until Biden arrives (see item 5).

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2. Scoop: U.S. asks Israel to avoid escalatory actions ahead of Biden's visit

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The U.S. asked Israel to refrain from any actions in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem that could create tensions ahead of President Biden’s visit next month, four Israeli, U.S. and Palestinian officials told me.

Why it matters: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is frustrated over recent contentious Israeli moves in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and furious about the U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • Abbas has threatened to take retaliatory action against Israel like stopping security coordination, taking steps in the UN or even canceling the recognition of Israel if the situation doesn't change.

Driving the news: Barbara Leaf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and her deputy for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, shuttled more than three times between Jerusalem and Ramallah during their visit this week, officials said.

  • Abbas told the U.S. diplomat he wants Israel to stop all its unilateral actions and expects Israel and the U.S. to present some kind of a political horizon for the Palestinians, PLO official and Abbas adviser Hussein al-Sheikh told me.
  • "The U.S. wants the visit to take place in a good atmosphere — different than the one now," said al-Sheikh, who is in charge of Palestinian contact with the Biden administration and met Leaf three times during her visit. "If the Israelis don’t stop their unilateral action, the situation deteriorates and becomes much worse."

Israeli officials said Leaf raised the Palestinian demands with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata and other senior officials.

  • Leaf asked Israel to halt actions like home demolitions, evictions of Palestinians and decisions on settlement building, as well as decrease Israeli military operations in the West Bank until after Biden's visit, the officials said.
  • Gantz, Lapid and Hulata told Leaf they will do their best, but explained the domestic political complexities of halting such actions in addition to what they called the operational needs of the Israeli military in order to stop attacks, the officials added.
  • "The Biden administration doesn’t want us to create any crisis in the West Bank. ... They want quiet and calm" for Biden's visit, a senior Israeli official told me.

State of play: Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials said Leaf, Amr and U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tried to put together a package of tangible deliverables for the Palestinians ahead of Biden’s visit, scheduled for July 13–15.

  • But they didn't make significant progress because there are not enough meaningful things the U.S. can give and Israel isn’t willing to take any steps with political significance that will be enough for the Palestinians, the officials said.
  • “We need a political horizon. We want to hear President Biden say what his detailed position regarding the two-state solution is," al-Sheikh said.
  • The U.S. also asked Israel to allow the symbolic presence of Palestinian Authority officials at the Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. Israeli officials say they are considering this positively.

What they're saying: During her visit, Leaf discussed "how to best lay the groundwork for a successful visit of President Biden to Israel and the West Bank in July," a State Department spokesperson said.

  • "This included continuing our long-standing diplomacy with both Israelis and Palestinians to encourage constructive steps to improve the situation on the ground."

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3. After suspicious deaths of Iranian officers, Israel warns of threat to tourists

Two men stand under portraits of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei and Gen. Qasem Soleimani during a rally in Tehran on June 3. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Iran suspects Israel is behind a series of assassinations of Iranian military officers and scientists. Now, Israel claims Iran is planning attacks on Israeli targets around the world.

What's happening: At least seven individuals associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Tehran's nuclear, missile or drone programs have died in suspicious circumstances over the past three weeks.

  • Iran hasn't blamed Israel in every case, and it's not clear whether Israel was behind any of them.

Details: The first high-profile death was of IRGC Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei on May 22. Iran accused Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. Israel didn't claim responsibility but said Khodaei commanded a unit focusing on covert attacks and was actively plotting strikes against Israeli targets.

  • A few days later, another IRGC colonel died in suspicious circumstances after reportedly falling from a balcony.
  • That same week, an engineer working for the Iranian Ministry of Defense died in a reported drone strike at the Parchin military research complex.
  • Then two Iranian scientists working with the military died in separate incidents after suffering similar symptoms from what Tehran reportedly suspects were poisoning attacks.
  • There were two more deaths reported in the past few days: a junior IRGC officer and an aerospace engineer. Iran said both were "martyred" but hasn't publicly accused Israel in either case.

What they're saying: In an unusual public statement before a hearing of the Knesset's security and foreign relations committee, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said his government had changed the strategy vis-à-vis Iran:

“In the past year, the State of Israel has taken action against the head of the terrorist octopus and not just against the arms as was done in previous decades. ... We are taking action, everywhere, at any time, and will continue to do so."

Behind the scenes: During the closed-door hearing, Bennett said Israel “didn’t just wake up one morning and decided to attack Iranians," according to three lawmakers in the room.

  • He didn’t get into specific operations but said “Israel only acts in retaliation to Iranian attacks or takes preventive action."

What to watch: Israeli intelligence issued its strongest-possible warning on Monday against travel to Turkey, which is the focal point of Israeli fears that Iran plans to target Israelis abroad.

4. U.S. envoy sees some progress in Israel-Lebanon maritime dispute

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (right) meets U.S. special energy envoy Amos Hochstein in Beirut on June 14. Photo: Lebanese Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein, who is mediating between Israel and Lebanon in their maritime border dispute, ended his visit to Beirut yesterday with more room for diplomacy.

Why it matters: The U.S. has expressed deep concern that rising tensions between Lebanon and Israel over the maritime border dispute of a potentially gas-rich area in the Mediterranean Sea could lead to an escalation in the region.

  • That dispute intensified in the last two weeks after a ship operated by gas exploration company Energean arrived to begin drilling in the Karish gas field, an area Israel says is within its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.

Driving the news: Hochstein held meetings in Beirut on Monday and Tuesday with the Lebanese leadership and received its response to a proposal he gave both sides more than four months ago.

  • Unlike in the past, the Lebanese response was unanimous and agreed upon by President Aoun, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
  • In recent weeks there was political pressure on the Lebanese government to widen its demand to include more area farther south, but the three leaders made it clear to Hochstein that Lebanon would stick to its original position regarding the maritime border, according to the Lebanese press.

Lebanon asked that Israel completely give up on the Qana gas field which is one of the main points of dispute.

  • According to Hochstein’s original proposal, the Qana gas field is supposed to be within Lebanese territory with Israel getting a right for part of the potential revenue that might be generated.
  • The Lebanese officials also demanded Israel halt drilling in the Karish gas field while talks take place.

What they're saying: In an interview with Alhurra Television yesterday, Hochstein said the unified message from the Lebanese leadership and the Lebanese position will enable the negotiations to move forward.

  • “I heard a clear understanding that the economic crisis in Lebanon that is closely tied with the energy crisis needs to be solved and resolving the maritime dispute is a critical step to resolving the economic crisis," he said.

What’s next: Hochstein is expected to relay to Israeli officials what he heard in Beirut.

  • Israeli officials said there is no date set for a visit by Hochstein to Israel.
  • Israeli officials said Lebanese officials appeared to return their original position, but it is too soon to know if there is real progress. They added that Israel won’t halt drilling in the Karish gas field.

5. Next two weeks crucial for Bennett's fragile coalition

Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

The next two weeks will be crucial for the survival of Bennett’s coalition as it tries to renew a law regulating Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Why it matters: Failure to pass the law, which is set to expire at the end of June, could lead to early elections.

Driving the news: Nir Orbach, a member of Bennett's party, announced he was leaving the coalition on Monday.

  • Bennett pressed Orbach, a right-wing lawmaker and a close confidant, to stay but failed. The last meeting between the two exploded with Orbach giving Bennett an ultimatum that if the “settlements law” doesn’t pass within a week, he will vote with the opposition in calling an election.
  • In such a scenario, the opposition will have a 61 majority in favor of an early election, at least in the preliminary hearing.

Catch up quick: Bennett’s fragile coalition, which had already lost the majority three weeks ago, lost a major vote last week on renewing a law that dictates Israeli settlers in the West Bank be subject to Israeli law rather than the military law applied to Palestinians there.

  • The law, although controversial, has typically been renewed every five years. But it didn't pass last week after two members of the coalition voted against the law. The right-wing, pro-settlement opposition also voted against the law to try to destabilize the government.
  • Bennett said on Monday there is about “a week or two weeks” to try to fix the coalition in order to pass the law and avoid a collapse.

State of play: The pressure is now focused on two coalition members — one from the Arab Ra’am party and one from the left-wing Meretz party — who oppose the law.

  • Bennett, Lapid and other coalition party leaders still hope the pressure will push the two to resign from the Knesset so they can reconsolidate the coalition and try to pass the law again.
  • In the meantime, Orbach said he and other members of Bennett's party are discussing with members of Netanyahu’s Likud party the possibility of forming a right-wing government without a new election.

What’s to watch: If the process of calling an election starts, it could move forward very fast and trigger the agreement between Bennett and Lapid to rotate in the position of prime minister.

  • If the government falls before July 13, President Biden could be welcomed at the Tel Aviv airport not by Bennett, but by a Prime Minister Lapid who would be in office until an election is held.