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Renewed dialogue ahead of President Biden visit

What happened: On Friday Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke to Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He wished him and the Palestinian people a happy Eid al-Adha.

  • A spokesperson for Lapid said the leaders “discussed continued cooperation and the need to ensure quiet and calm”.
  • President Isaac Herzog also spoke with Abbas on Friday, while Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with him in Ramallah on Thursday.
  • On Saturday Prime Minister Lapid spoke to Jordan’s King Abdullah II and conveyed warn wishes for Eid al-Adha and his condolences on the recent gas explosion in Aqaba. The pair also discussed the need to strengthen and deepen cooperation between Israel and Jordan.
  • The Likud criticised the call to Abbas (Abu Mazen): “After a decade in which Netanyahu removed the Palestinian issue from the global agenda, Lapid and Gantz have restored Abu Mazen to the centre of the global stage, who hasn’t stopped inciting to murder Israelis.”
  • Hamas also criticised the call, accusing Abbas of “selling the Palestinian interest”.
  • Yesterday Lapid spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
  • According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Lapid and el-Sisi “discussed bilateral and regional matters, and emphasised the importance of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel which laid the foundation for the countries’ strategic relations and is a central pillar of regional stability. The two expressed their commitment to continuing to develop relations, including in the economic sphere.”
  • The two leaders agreed to advance a meeting between them soon.

Context: The symbolism of Lapid speaking to Abbas is a small but notable change between Lapid and his two predecessors, Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • This was the first time in five years that an Israeli prime minister had spoken with the Palestinian leader.
  • One needs to go back a decade to the last time an Israeli prime minister and the leader of the PA spoke when it wasn’t in the aftermath of a terror attack. Netanyahu, spoke with Abbas in 2014 following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, and in 2017 following a terror attack on the Temple Mount.

Iran on the agenda:  Iran confirmed it is now enriching uranium in advanced centrifuges.

  • Iran announced that it has begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent using sophisticated IR-6 centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear plant.
  • At yesterday’s cabinet meeting Prime Minister Lapid said: “The international response needs to be decisive: to return to the UN Security Council and activate the sanctions mechanism at full force. Israel, for its part, reserves for itself full freedom of action, diplomatic and operational, in the fight against the Iranian nuclear programme.
  • “This is an opportunity to again thank the United States for not lifting the sanctions on the Iranian IRGC. Iran is behind Hezbollah and supports Hamas, and Iranian terror cells recently tried to murder Israeli tourists in Istanbul.”
  • Lapid is expected to ask US President Joe Biden to use the snap-back mechanism in the JCPOA and to put the matter to the UN Security Council in order to renew multilateral sanctions against Iran.
  • Lapid will also present the need to put a credible military threat on the table, arguing that that is the only way to get the Iranians to agree to a more comprehensive nuclear agreement.

Regional architecture: One of the central themes of the Presidential visit will be discussions to advance a regional aerial defence system, which will include Israel and regional allies, to respond to the threat of Iranian precision missiles and drones.

  • Last month it was revealed that in March the IDF Chief of Staff attended a summit with his regional counterparts to discuss military cooperation.
  • The talks were held at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and included participants from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan.
  • The meeting was coordinated by the US and was the first time such high-ranking officials from these countries met.
  • No imminent breakthrough in Israel-Saudi Arabia normalisation is expected during Biden’s visit this week, but a series of incremental measures could include:
    • Saudi Arabian consent to allow Israeli flights over its territory (currently only flights between Tel Aviv and the UAE and Bahrain are allowed).
    • Direct flights for Israeli Arab Muslims to visit on the Hajj.
    • Israel to give its consent to the transfer of two uninhabited islands Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.  The two islands were returned to Egypt in the 1979 peace agreement and any change in their status requires approval (and de facto recognition of Israel).
    • Speculation that the Saudis are considering hosting a senior Israeli officials either during or after Biden’s visit.

Biden writes: Ahead of his visit to the region President Biden wrote an oped in the Washington Post talking up his achievements in the Middle East.

  • On Iran, Biden wrote that Iran “is isolated until it returns to the nuclear deal. Last month, more than 30 countries joined us to condemn Iran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its past nuclear activities.”
  • He “restored approximately $500 million in support for Palestinians, while also passing the largest support package for Israel — over $4 billion — in history.”
  • “On Friday, I will also be the first president to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That travel will also be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalisation between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”

Looking ahead: President Biden will arrive in Israel on Wednesday afternoon. He will be accompanied by a very large entourage of hundreds of staff and security, which will move about in an 80-vehicle convoy.

  • Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia in coordination between the countries – another tacit sign of incremental improving ties.
  • Israeli officials are discussing some gestures that could be made toward the Palestinians ahead of the President’s visit, such as rolling out a 4G cellular network and convening the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Economic Committee, but no decisions have been made yet.

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