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Biden and Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty

The United States and Israel have elected to reconvene a strategic working group on Iran, with the first round of talks on intelligence surrounding the Iranian nuclear program expected in the coming days, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have sharply contrasting views of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but the resumption of the working group is a signal that their governments are starting with a serious and professional dialogue rather than a political fight.

Flashback: The working group was established in the early days of the Obama administration following a White House visit from Netanyahu in 2009. The top-secret forum was even given a special code name.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure to Iran during Obama’s first term, and it became the primary setting to air disagreements about the nuclear deal during Obama’s second term.
  • During Donald Trump's tenure, the forum convened to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to coordinate the "maximum pressure" campaign.
  • The forum is headed by the U.S. and Israeli national security advisers — currently Jake Sullivan and Meir Ben-Shabbat — and includes top officials from across the various national security, foreign policy and intelligence agencies in both countries.

Driving the news: Sullivan proposed the resumption of the working group in his first phone call with Ben-Shabbat on Jan. 23.

  • Israel was engaged in an interagency disagreement over how to engage with the White House over Iran, and the decision of whether to accept the proposal was further delayed by Israel's domestic turmoil ahead of next month's elections.

Behind the scenes: On Monday, Netanyahu held the first high-level interagency meeting on Iran with Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and the chiefs of the other national security and intelligence agencies.

  • The meeting started with the various agencies providing updates on their engagements to date with the Biden administration, to provide a full picture of what had been discussed through the various channels, sources familiar with the meeting tell me.
  • Next came proposals on how to engage with the Biden administration going forward. The directors of the Mossad intelligence agency and Israel Defense Forces both stressed the need for a quiet dialogue, free from public confrontations.
  • The main action item was the decision to accept the proposal to resume the working group.

What's next: The top Israeli priority in the first meeting — which will take place over a secure video conference system — is to lay out all the latest intelligence and data on Iran's nuclear program and assess whether the U.S. and Israeli intelligence pictures align.

  • Israeli sources familiar with the issue say that a mutual intelligence baseline must be established before moving on to policy discussions.

The state of play: Netanyahu swiftly expressed concern last Friday after Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the U.S. was prepared to begin nuclear talks with Iran aimed at restoring the 2015 deal.

Go deeper

Updated Feb 23, 2021 - World

Blinken asks for Israeli help in facilitating COVID vaccines to the Palestinians

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken asked his Israeli counterpart in their phone call on Monday for Israel to facilitate the transfer of COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli officials told me.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister’s office announced that Israel has decided to send a "symbolic amount" of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority and to several countries that have asked for assistance.

Feb 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden will call Saudi king ahead of damning report

King Salman speaks during the 2020 U.N. General Assembly. Photo: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden plans to call Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday, ahead of the public release of a potentially damning intelligence report about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a source briefed on the call told Axios.

Why it matters: The call, if it happens as scheduled, will be Biden’s first conversation as president with the Saudi king. While they are likely to discuss a range of issues, the conversation will be colored by the imminent release of the explosive report expected to involve one of the monarch's sons.

MacKenzie Scott donates another $2.7 billion to 286 organizations

MacKenzie Scott with her former husband, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Photo by Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

MacKenzie Scott announced Tuesday that she and her husband, Dan Jewett, had donated $2.74 billion to 286 different organizations, including community-based nonprofits and organizations focused on racial justice.

Why it matters: It's the next phase of what the New York Times describes as a "highly unconventional approach" to philanthropy from one of the richest women in the world.