May 12, 2021

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Each week we bring you my best scoops, reporting from a contributor in the region and the latest in Israeli politics. Today’s edition is 1,920 words (7 minutes).
  • I hope all of you who are reading this from Israel or Gaza are safe, along with your families.

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1 big thing: Biden to send envoy as Israel and Hamas escalate

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip leave their neighborhood on Wednesday following an explosion. Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty

With Israel and Hamas now engaged in their most destructive fight in seven years, the Biden administration is considering plans to dispatch a State Department official to join the de-escalation efforts, five Israeli officials and Western diplomats tell me.

Driving the news: The fighting intensified overnight, with Hamas and other militants firing over 100 rockets toward Tel Aviv and other nearby cities, and Israel continuing its air campaign in the Gaza Strip by destroying high-rise buildings, Hamas facilities and rocket units.

  • At least 20 Palestinians were killed in the last 24 hours, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. That brings the overall death toll to 43 including at least 15 women and children.
  • Three Israelis were killed and 200 wounded, while three Israeli soldiers were critically wounded when Hamas fired anti-tank rockets at military vehicles along the border with Gaza.

The latest: The Israeli air force attacked a meeting of senior Hamas military leaders on Wednesday in Gaza and reported it had killed the Gaza City Brigade commander and the heads of Hamas’ cyber arm and weapons research and development department, along with at least three other senior officials.

Behind the scenes: The Biden administration is trying to work with Egypt to push for de-escalation, U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

  • Deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr is expected to travel to Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
  • Israeli officials tell me the trip is likely to happen but they're waiting on final confirmation. The State Department didn’t comment.
  • It would be the most active U.S. intervention so far in the Gaza crisis, and Amr’s first trip to the region since assuming office.

Meanwhile, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Tuesday to his Egyptian counterpart, Abbas Kamel. The White House said Sullivan discussed “steps to restore calm over the coming days" with Egyptian officials.

  • State Department officials have also been communicating with Cairo.
  • Sullivan also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. According to the White House, Sullivan condemned the Hamas rocket attacks and “conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."
  • Secretary of State Blinken also spoke on Tuesday with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Israeli officials tell me Blinken didn’t press the Israelis to stop the operation in Gaza for now, but he stressed the U.S. doesn’t want things to escalate into an all-out war and wants to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza.

The big picture: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a low priority in President Biden's early months, but once a crisis erupted, the administration found itself understaffed.

  • Unlike his predecessors, Biden didn’t appoint an envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He still hasn't nominated an ambassador to Israel or followed through on his plans to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
  • That has left him without a senior diplomat on the ground to talk to either the Palestinian or Israeli leadership. At this time four years ago, Trump’s ambassador was already in Israel.
  • Instead, Amr has functioned as both the deputy assistant secretary and the de facto consul general and point of contact to the Palestinians.

The state of play: Egyptian and UN mediators are talking to both parties, but were rebuffed by the Israeli government when they raised the possibility of a ceasefire, Israeli officials tell me.

"We’re escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation. The cost of war in Gaza is devastating. Stop the violence now."
— UN envoy Tor Wennesland on Tuesday

What’s next: The Israeli Security Cabinet is expected to convene today to discuss the Gaza operation. Israeli officials say they want to hit Hamas harder in order to renew deterrence before engaging in ceasefire talks.

  • The UN Security Council will convene at 9am ET for a closed session to discuss the Gaza crisis. For now, the U.S. is still blocking any attempt to issue a joint statement on the situation.
2. Jerusalem crisis widens rift between Jewish and Arab Israelis

A rabbi inside a torched religious school in Lod. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty

The crisis in Jerusalem and Gaza is fueling hostility and fear between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Why it matters: This week has seen the worst inter-communal violence in Israel since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000.

The state of play: Demonstrations organized by Israeli Arabs to show solidarity with the Palestinians set to be evicted from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem — and in response to the raid by Israeli security forces on Monday at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — escalated into riots in cities and towns across Israel on Monday.

  • The most violent riots came in mixed cities where Jews and Arabs live together.

Driving the news: The most serious incident took place in the city of Lod near Tel Aviv, where an Arab Israeli citizen was shot dead by a Jewish Israeli, who was later arrested by the police.

  • That led to widespread riots in the city. Synagogues and cars were set on fire, and several Jewish residents were attacked. The government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday night and sent in border patrol forces to restore order.
  • Riots also took place in the historic city of Acre where cars, restaurants and hotels owned by Jews were torched.
  • In the city of Ramla, radical right-wing Jews attacked Arabs and set a Muslim cemetery on fire.

Worth noting: The riots took place at a time when Arab political parties have the most influence over Israeli politics since the founding of the country, and after what was seen as a renaissance in Jewish-Arab relations during the COVID-19 crisis.

What to watch: Many in Israel's Arab minority hope that the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr starting on Thursday to mark the end of Ramadan will help cool down the situation.

3. Bibi Barometer: Crisis throws Lapid and Bennett off track

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Pool, Gali Tibbon/Getty Images

Efforts to form a new government and oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have come to an almost complete halt amid the escalation with Hamas.

Why it matters: Opposition leader Yair Lapid is six days into his 28-day mandate, and he seemed on track to strike a deal with Naftali Bennett, a right-wing kingmaker. But the latest crisis could make those efforts nearly impossible.

  • That’s because a Lapid-Bennett government would be just short of a majority in the Knesset unless they can get the support of at least one Arab party.
  • The Arab Joint List supported Lapid in getting the mandate but was expected to abstain from a vote on the new government.
  • Lapid and Bennett were thus banking on the support of Mansour Abbas' Ra'am party — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and sister movement of Hamas that broke from the Joint List.
  • Abbas was negotiating with both Lapid and Bennett about forming a government, and with Netanyahu about preventing them from doing so.

Driving the news: As the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza escalated on Monday, Abbas announced that he was suspending the coalition talks.

  • Abbas faced harsh criticism in his party and in the broader Arab community in Israel for his willingness to join any Israeli government.
  • The riots inside Israel also increased the criticism among Jews about the plans to form a government that would be dependent on an Islamist party.

What they're saying: Lapid issued a statement on Wednesday stressing that the escalation is further proof of the need to replace Netanyahu as soon as possible.

  • He said he would not allow Hamas to harm the democratic process in Israel and stressed the efforts to form a unity government would continue.
  • Bennett also issued a statement on Wednesday stressing that Netanyahu’s Likud party had failed in running the country and was incompetently leading Israel into a disaster.

What’s next: If the situation de-escalates quickly, Lapid, Bennett and Abbas could try to revive their talks.

  • But if it continues into next week, it could make those talks impossible and lead Israel closer to a fifth election since 2019.
4. The view from Ankara: Erdoğan seeks to reconcile with Egypt, Saudis

Erdoğan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018. Photo: Daniel Jayo/Getty Images

Turkey has gone on a charm offensive in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to break its regional isolation and end a harmful economic boycott, Menekse Tokyay writes from Ankara for Axios.

Why it matters: The response to these olive branches will depend on the extent to which Turkey is willing to fulfill Egyptian and Saudi demands in terms of its regional interventions and policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamal Khashoggi case.

Driving the news: For the first time since 2013, Turkey and Egypt held political consultations in Cairo last week to improve bilateral relations and exchange views on regional issues, particularly Libya, Iraq, Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.

  • Then this Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met in Mecca with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The meeting followed a call between King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
  • The outreach follows a bitter dispute over the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, after which Turkey expressed outrage and demanded the extradition of Saudi suspects.

The big picture: Ankara’s interventionist policies in the region’s hotspots have also long angered Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have condemned Erdoğan's "neo-Ottomanist" aspirations.

The backstory: Erdoğan said on March 12 that Cairo and Ankara had held “intelligence, diplomatic and economic” contacts, and he expressed his hopes for “strong” ties between the two countries after years of tensions.

  • These remarks preceded Turkey’s push to soften the critical coverage of three Istanbul-based dissident Egyptian TV channels, which stopped broadcasting some of their political shows — a reconciliatory gesture that was welcomed by Egypt.
  • The Turkish parliament also recently decided to launch a friendship committee with Egypt.

Yes, but: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are dragging their feet in terms of rapprochement with Turkey, awaiting concrete steps from Ankara to show its sincerity.

  • Turkey says it's not ready to hand over Muslim Brotherhood leaders who are sought by Cairo but have legal residence permits in Turkey.
  • Saudi Arabia will likely have some prerequisites of its own for ending its unofficial boycott on Turkish goods, which has been in place for two years.
  • And the recent Saudi decision to close some Turkish schools by the end of the academic year indicates that the path to normalization could be rocky.

Between the lines: Rising tensions between Turkey and Iran have been another factor in Turkey's push for normalization with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to Galip Dalay, a nonresident fellow at Brookings Doha.

What to watch: The Turkish government's statements and actions on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Khashoggi case will be a sign of how deep of a shift Ankara is willing to make.

5. Israel-Lebanon maritime border talks collapse again

A UN peacekeeping boat off of Naqoura. Photo: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty

U.S.-mediated talks between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border ran aground again almost immediately after being relaunched last week, sources familiar with the talks tell me.

Why it matters: The talks are an attempt to resolve a dispute over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The revenues at stake could reach the tens of billions of dollars.

Flashback: Both Israel and Lebanon provided their positions on where the border should be to the UN a decade ago.

  • But the talks got stuck last December when the Lebanese shifted their position and the Israelis retaliated by changing theirs as well.
  • That left the area in dispute even larger than when the talks began, leading to a five-month hiatus.

Driving the news: The Biden administration re-engaged with the Lebanese several weeks ago to relaunch the talks with the understanding that Lebanon wouldn't raise its new demand again.

  • But last Tuesday, when the Israeli and Lebanese negotiators met at the UN base in Naqoura, Lebanon, U.S. mediator John Desrocher was surprised to hear the Lebanese reiterating their new position on the borderline, a source briefed on the talks says.
  • The Israeli negotiators said they were only willing to negotiate on the basis of the original lines submitted to the UN, an Israeli official tells me.
  • Desrocher told the Lebanese and Israeli negotiators that there was no point in continuing the talks if they weren't on the basis of the original area of dispute, according to Lebanese media accounts confirmed by a source briefed on the talks.

What’s next: The talks ended with no date for another meeting. The process could now enter another long freeze.