The Takeaway: Is Israel ready to welcome the Squad?

Israeli minister says it is time to ramp up outreach to Democrats; Amberin Zaman gets the scoop on Turkey-Israel channel; Biden administration needs to lay out Saudi policy early; four Mideast takeaways from Obama’s book.

al-monitor US Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan arrive before participating during a town hall hosted by the NAACP on Sept. 11, 2019, in Washington. The congresswomen talked about their backgrounds and how they were disrupters who “challenged conventional wisdom and assumptions” about how to get elected, among other topics.  Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

Dec 2, 2020

Israel: Minister doesn’t rule out visit by Ocasio-Cortez, critics of Israel

Making contact: Orit Farkash Hacohen, Israel’s minister of tourism and strategic affairs, says that the Israeli government has “not put enough attention” on outreach to Democrats in the United States over the past four years. The close relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, and Trump’s unprecedented support for Israel, including relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem, has appeared to crowd out contacts with Democrats at a time when a new and vocal generation of progressives in the party have been critical of US policy toward Israel.

Taking initiative: Hacohen, in an exclusive interview with Ben Caspit, said she has taken it upon herself to keep up contacts with Democrats, and that this outreach has been well received.

Not just about "convincing the convinced": Hacohen said that official Israeli engagement with Americans is “not only about convincing the convinced.” Asked if she would consider welcoming Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., both of whom have been critical of US policies toward Israel, Hacohen did not rule it out. Criticism of Israel, even tough criticism, should not be a reason to turn away guests given Israel’s commitment to freedom of speech, Hacohen added.

Hard feelings: Ocasio-Cortez faced questions in October from pro-Israel and pro-peace groups for not participating in an Americans for Peace Now event on the 25th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

Warm conversation: Meanwhile, Netanyahu said Nov. 17 that he had a “warm conversation” with US President-elect Joe Biden, with whom he has had a friendly relationship for a long time.

Listen to Ben’s Caspit’s interview with Orit Farkash Hacohen here in the latest “On Israel” podcast. 

Turkey: Erdogan opens secret channel to Israel

Look who’s talking: Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan has been leading secret talks with Israeli counterparts about not only shared security concerns in Syria and Libya, as has been the case in the past, but also about reestablishing ambassadorial relations in both countries.

The Washington connection: “There is mounting worry in Ankara that the incoming Joe Biden administration will be less indulgent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bellicosity, which has seen Turkey mount three separate incursions against the Syrian Kurds since 2016, send troops and Syrian mercenaries to Libya and Azerbaijan, and lock horns with Greece in Aegean and eastern Mediterranean waters,” writes Amberin Zaman. “The biggest concern is that, unlike President Donald Trump, Biden will not shield Turkey from sanctions over its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and for Turkish state lender Halkbank’s paramount role in facilitating Iran’s multibillion-dollar illicit oil for gold trade.”

… and the Hamas connection: “Israel alleges that hundreds of Hamas operatives, among them US-designated terrorists who have plotted attacks against the Jewish state, have been offered sanctuary and in some cases Turkish nationality by Ankara,” adds Zaman.

Read Amberin Zaman’s scoop and analysis here.

Saudi Arabia: Biden administration needs to clarify Saudi policy early

The Biden administration should give early priority to clarifying what it means by a reset in US policy toward Saudi Arabia, says American Enterprise Institute scholar Karen Young in the latest "On the Middle East" podcast.

High anxiety: Biden has said he would hold the kingdom accountable for its human rights record and conduct in the Yemen war. Trump said he “saved” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “ass” over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in an interview with Bob Woodward for the book "Rage."  There have been congressional efforts to hold off or limit arms sales to the kingdom, which Trump has deflected. Biden has made clear the kingdom is unlikely to get such preferential treatment. 

A new deal on Iran: Biden reiterated to Tom Friedman this week that he is ready to reengage on the Iran nuclear deal, if Iran is in compliance. There may be some anxiety about this in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals, as well as in Jerusalem, which have all backed Trump’s withdrawal in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name of the Iran nuclear deal.

“If there is a new deal in which Saudi Arabia is involved in the discussion and which covers the shortcomings of the previous deal, such as Iran’s hydromantic behavior in the region and the issue of the missiles and the supply of weapons to rebel groups and so forth, then we will be all for it,” Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the kingdom’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told Fox News.

Our take: Biden is unlikely to create more problems with essential, if sometimes challenging, partners, such as Saudi Arabia, while trying to solve problems with the United States’ No. 1 regional adversary, Iran. Expect Biden to include US partners in a more expansive approach to regional security in its dealings on Iran, as we explained here in September. Biden will want to keep Saudi Arabia close, or close enough, to get these talks on track. It won’t, however, be the embrace that the crown prince received from the Trump administration. Human rights and Yemen will figure on the bilateral agenda.

What we’re reading: Four Mideast takeaways from Obama’s "The Promised Land"

Barack Obama’s "The Promised Land," the first volume of his presidential memoirs, is a must-read, including on the Middle East. Here are four quick takes, among many:

  • On Saudi Arabia: On his first trip to the kingdom, Obama writes that he was struck by “how oppressive and sad such a segregated place felt, as if I’d entered a world where all the colors had been muted.”
  • On Egypt: In meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Obama got the “impression that would become all too familiar in my dealings with aging autocrats … their actions governed by no broader purpose beyond maintaining the tangled web of patronage and business interests that keep them in power.”
  • On the September 2010 dinner with Netanyahu, Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan: “I’d think back often to the dinner … the pantomime of it, their lack of resolve. To insist that the old order in the Middle East would indefinitely hold, to believe that the children of despair wouldn’t revolt, at some point, against those who maintained it — that, it turned out, was the greatest illusion of all.”
  • On a conversation with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed after calling for Mubarak to step down in February 2011: “MBZ told me that US statements on Egypt were being watched in the Gulf, with increasing alarm, … It shows, he said, that the United States is not a partner we can rely in the long term. … His voice was calm and cold. It was less a plea for help, I realized, than a warning. Whatever happened to Mubarak, the old order had no intention of conceding power without a fight.”
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