Nov 19, 2019

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World for our lucky 168th edition. Tonight's global digest is 1,585 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: Trump's green light for Israeli settlements

Pompeo and Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The U.S. no longer considers Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem to be “inconsistent with international law,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced today, reversing four decades of U.S. policy.

The big picture: This move is part of a pattern that critics say undermines the prospects of a Palestinian state. President Trump previously recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and absorbed the consulate that served Palestinians into the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — all while cutting aid to the Palestinians.

Context: The Carter administration determined in 1978 that the settlements violated international law, a positioned tweaked under Ronald Reagan to label the settlements “illegitimate” under international law.

  • The settlements are considered illegal by most of the international community, including the UN. Palestinian leaders say the occupied territories must be part of any future state.
  • “About 600,000 Jews live in about 140 settlements built since Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem,” per the BBC, a number that has more than tripled over the past 25 years.

Between the lines: Axios contributor Barak Ravid writes that the largely symbolic move will do two things: boost the settlements project and widen the partisan divide in the U.S. over Israel.

  • A senior Israeli official tells Barak that the U.S. consulted Israel several months ago over whether this decision could harm Israel legally or internationally. Israel gave its full support.
  • The announcement was to be made last week but was postponed because of the escalation around Gaza, according to the official.

What they’re saying:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival, said the move “righted a historic injustice.” He spoke to Trump this evening and thanked him, their first call since Israel’s inconclusive election two months ago.
  • Benny Gantz, who has just two more days to form a government to displace Netanyahu and prevent a third election this year, also praised the move.
  • Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the move "poses a threat to global security and peace" and is part of Trump's efforts to "replace international law with the law of the jungle.”
  • The EU released a statement urging Israel to “end all settlement activity,” which it called “illegal” and said undermines hopes for a “lasting peace.”
  • Jordan’s foreign minister also sharply criticized the announcement.

What to watch: Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 but has never annexed it, as it immediately did with East Jerusalem.

  • Doing so could put “Israel’s status as a Jewish democracy at risk in two ways,” per the NY Times.
  • “If the West Bank’s Palestinians are made Israeli citizens, the country’s Arabs could quickly outnumber its Jews. If they are not given full citizenship rights, Israel would become an apartheid state.”
2. Pompeo declines to defend his diplomats

Pompeo. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Pompeo dodged multiple questions today about why he has declined to offer public support to State Department employees, like former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who have been caught up in impeachment proceedings.

Why it matters: President Trump has attacked career civil servants in general — and Yovanovitch in particular — as "Never Trumpers" determined to remove him from office. Former diplomats have warned that such rhetoric is inflicting lasting damage on the foreign service, and Pompeo's silence on the issue has been met with significant criticism.

In a press conference today, Pompeo said he was not going to "get into issues surrounding Democrat impeachment inquiry," but said he was "proud of what this administration has done toward Ukraine."

  • Asked again whether he would defend his subordinates, Pompeo said "I always defend State Department employees" — though he declined to do so with any specificity in this case.
  • When another reporter asked about Trump's tweets attacking Yovanovitch, Pompeo said, "I don't have anything to say."
  • Pompeo also declined to say whether he has full confidence in Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat currently in Ukraine and another impeachment witness.

Flashback: Yovanovitch, who is still a State Department employee, said during last week's hearing that she found Trump's tweets "very intimidating" and called on State Department leaders to defend employees who were being "denigrated and undermined."

Situational awareness: Clashes in Hong Kong

The scene at Hong Kong PolyU. Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images

Clashes between police and radical protestors overnight at Hong Kong Polytechnic University were among the most violent and destructive to date.

Go deeper.

3. Big leak No. 1: China's crackdown on the Uighurs

A building, believed to house a detention center, in Hotan, Xinjiang. Photo: Peter Martin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A trove of Chinese government documents leaked to the New York Times shows the origins and execution of China’s detention of more than 1 million mostly Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh notes.

Why it matters: This is "one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades," per the Times. The documents, shared by an anonymous member of the Chinese political establishment, imply "greater discontent inside the party apparatus over the crackdown than previously known."

What the documents reveal:

  • President Xi Jinping's private speeches, starting in 2014, set the tone for the clampdown. He called for a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy," per the Times.
  • The appointment of regional leader Chen Quanguo in 2016 led to a rapid increase in detentions.
“Round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
— Chen Quanguo in an order repeated throughout internal documents

Three things that stuck with me.

  1. Uighur children learning their parents had been detained were urged to “treasure this chance for free education that the party and government have provided," according to prompts given to officials.
  2. An official tasked with overseeing the detentions was himself prosecuted. His crime, per the official report: “He refused to round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
  3. Few countries around the world have criticized China on this issue, and many have defended Beijing.
4. Big leak No. 2: Iran's influence-building in Iraq

A protester in Baghdad rejects U.S. and Iranian influence. Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hundreds of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by The Intercept and shared with the New York Times "show how Iran, at nearly every turn, has outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence" in Iraq, per the Times.

Why it matters: Widespread protests in Iraq against corruption and poor government services have in some cases been spurred on by another grievance: Iranian influence over Iraqi politics.

One key finding: Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s embattled prime minister, is described as having a "special relationship" with Iran as of 2014 when he was oil minister.

  • The exact nature of that relationship is unclear. Mahdi was considered a compromise pick between the U.S. and Iran when he took office a year ago.

The big picture: Iran gained influence in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, and in particular after the 2011 troop withdrawal when "the CIA had tossed many of its longtime secret agents out on the street."

  • One former Iraqi who spied for the CIA, known to the agency as Donnie Brasco, switched sides in 2014 and offered Iran everything from the locations of safe houses to the names and appearances of Iraqis spying for the U.S.
  • In another case, Iran offered a U.S. State Department employee money and gold to spy for Tehran. It’s unclear what became of that effort.
  • Meanwhile, an Iraqi intelligence officer offered an Iranian counterpart access to "secret targeting software" along with information about a "system for eavesdropping on mobile phones" — both provided to Iraq by the U.S.

In other news: Iran blames deadly gasoline protests on foreign enemies.

5. Eastern Europe: Oligarchs, reform and turmoil

The scene in Tbilisi. Photo: David Mdzinarishvili\TASS via Getty Images

1. Some 20,000 protested in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sunday after the parliament voted down promised reforms to an electoral system said to benefit the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Why it matters: The protestors demanded early elections, Reuters reports, while opposition leaders claimed the reforms failed due to pressure from Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and the leader of Georgian Dream.

Between the lines:

  • I met with Georgian civil society leaders last month in Washington and they raised grave concerns about democratic backsliding as well as state capture by Ivanishvili.
  • In a fledgling democracy where Russian disinformation is a daily concern, they said Georgian Dream was increasingly parroting Russian talking points.
  • Worth noting: The absence of a U.S. ambassador is keenly felt in Georgia.

2. Moldova's pro-reform government collapsed last week after five months.

  • Pro-EU and pro-Russia parties had joined in a marriage of convenience designed to oust oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, who was then consolidating control but has now gone into exile.
  • The pact collapsed when reform-minded Prime Minister Maia Sandu pushed for a strong public prosecutor to fight corruption.
  • That spooked pro-Russia President Igor Dodon according to Igor Munteanu, Moldova’s former ambassador to the U.S. and now an MP from the pro-EU bloc. He says Dodon feared probes "into his own doings."
6. What I'm reading: Basques and bugs

Juicy larvae for sale at a market in Kinshasa. Photo: Junior D. Kannah/AFP via Getty Images

Two lighter offerings from my weekend reading...

1. Athletic Bilbao is one of Spain's most successful soccer clubs, but while rivals like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona scour the world for top talent, Athletic has for more than a century restricted its roster to players from the Basque Country, which straddles the border between Spain and France.

  • It's the only club across Europe's top soccer leagues to have such a restriction, and "an outlier in a game that has embraced globalisation," the FT notes.
  • The club believes its shared sense of identity and purpose can help it overcome its recruitment problem. Dive in.

2. Grasshopper hunters gather every morning at Goma Airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where electric lights draw swarms of bugs.

  • "Selling insects is more lucrative than selling fruit," the Economist notes, and "gathering them costs nothing but time."
  • "Caterpillars are packed with potassium, calcium and magnesium. ... They are richer in protein than beef or fish. A handful is packed with about 500 calories, more than are in a fast-food cheeseburger."
  • "Others around the world should catch up." Take a bite.
7. Stories we're watching

Celebrating the 500th birthday of Havana, Cuba. Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images

  1. Strongman wins Sri Lanka presidential election
  2. Trump pardons services members for war crimes
  3. Trump to offer additional trade war relief to farmers
  4. International enrollment at U.S. colleges falls again
  5. Hurling comes to America
  6. U.S., South Korea cancel joint military exercise
  7. North Korea: Trump views summits as chance to "brag"


"Rabid dogs like Biden can hurt lots of people if they are allowed to run about."
— North Korean state media
"Mr. Chairman, Joe Biden may be Sleepy and Very Slow, but he is not a 'rabid dog.' He is actually somewhat better than that, but I am the only one who can get you where you have to be. ... See you soon!"
— Trump on Twitter
“We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us. As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can brag about."
North Korea's response
Dave Lawler