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The Takeaway: As Israel veers right, US tries to reason with Netanyahu

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The Biden administration insists it will judge Israel’s new far-right government based on its policies, not personalities — but some early measures against the Palestinians are already raising concern.

In the past two weeks, the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has revoked the VIP entry permits of several Palestinian officials, moved to restrict the use of the Palestinian flag in public spaces and announced the withholding of some funds from the Palestinian Authority. Further ratcheting up tensions was the brief but controversial visit of hardline National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to Jerusalem’s holiest site. 

Smoothing things over in Washington this week was the man expected to serve as Netanyahu’s main channel to the White House: newly appointed Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer. The former Israeli ambassador to the US from 2013 to 2021 arrived Monday for meetings with Biden officials, Rina Bassist reported. 

Dermer, who masterminded Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to the Republican-controlled Congress, remains his close confidant. Despite his antagonistic relationship with some Democrats, Dermer is seen by US officials as a pragmatist, at least compared to the far-right figures in Netanyahu’s cabinet, Ben Caspit reports. 

“The United States is facing an extremist and chaotic Israeli government, but the representatives with whom it will have to deal are more or less reasonable people,” Caspit writes of Dermer and Israeli Ambassador the US Michael Herzog.   

Exactly how President Joe Biden will engage with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history remains to be seen, and it has downplayed reports that it has barred dealings with the most extreme members, including pro-annexation Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, a firebrand Jewish settler once convicted of inciting racism against Arabs. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides clarified Wednesday there is no formal boycott of Ben-Gvir, but that he’ll mainly work with Netanyahu. 

“The administration is going to do its best to minimize points of friction,” said former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“It’s going to keep a lot of focus on areas of consensus, or relative consensus, such as security cooperation, trying to expand the Abraham Accords and ensuring Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. 

To set some markers down, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Israel next week and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will follow up with his own trip shortly after, two sources familiar with the plans confirmed to Al-Monitor. 

Netanyahu himself is expected to visit the White House in early 2023, during which he and Biden can directly address potential friction points, such as the historic status quo and West Bank annexation.  

 “The United States is not going to start dealing with different cabinet ministers,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues in the Obama administration. 

“Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for four decades, and I think they both share a proclivity to kind of solve problems behind closed doors,” Makovsky said.  

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American marks five years in Iranian prison 

Morad Tahbaz, a British-born American citizen, marked five years in Iranian detention on Tuesday. The environmental activist jailed on trumped-up espionage charges was released on a three-month furlough in July but was returned to Iran’s Evin Prison weeks after a deadly fire broke out at the sprawling facility in October. 

“It’s crazy to think that it’s now been half a decade,” his daughter Tara Tahbaz told Al-Monitor. 

“Biden has always stated that bringing all American hostages home is a top priority. But we still haven’t even been able to meet with him directly,” Tahbaz said. “We’re just hoping that they understand the urgency — and more now than ever with everything happening in Iran — to use every tool and opportunity possible to bring them home.” 

Tahbaz is one of several US citizens and residents held by Iran, including Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Shahab Dalili. The families have repeatedly expressed concerns that their fates are linked to the all-but-collapsed nuclear deal.  

US knocks Houthis’ hardline position in Yemen 

The Biden administration is optimistic that Yemen could claw its way out of conflict in 2023. Speaking at an event in Washington on Monday, US Special Envoy Tim Lenderking said the year “brings new opportunities to end the conflict once and for all,” while acknowledging such diplomatic solutions take time.

The United States and United Nations are working to renew a nationwide truce that brought relative calm to Yemen before it expired in early October. Lenderking has put the blame squarely on the Iran-backed Houthis for injecting last-minute demands over public sector salaries into the cease-fire negotiations.  

“The Yemen government has formed its own negotiating team. The Houthis so far have refused to sit down with them,” Lenderking said Monday. “ We urge the Houthis to change this approach.”

Lenderking’s plea comes after the US Navy intercepted another shipment of weapons along a maritime route typically used for trafficking weapons from Iran to the Houthis, Jared Szuba reports. 

Negev Forum highlights Israeli-Arab cooperation 

The latest gathering of the Negev Forum wrapped its meetings in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, with some 150 representatives from the governments of Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the United States meeting to discuss deepening regional cooperation. Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, declined to join the forum in solidarity with the Palestinians, who also refused to participate. 

State Department counselor Derek Chollet, who led the US delegation, told Al-Monitor in a phone briefing Tuesday that officials “came up with several concrete projects” to further bolster regional countries’ military capabilities and enhance information sharing in line with US Central Command’s efforts to build regional defense cooperation. Read Salim A. Essaid’s full report here. 

Other stories from our top contributors 

• Turkey’s major pro-Kurdish opposition party will field its own candidate in the country’s presidential elections this June. Amberin Zaman examines whether the move will actually benefit incumbent Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  

• Reporting from Tripoli, Islam Alatrash writes that the residents of Libya’s oil-rich areas are suffering from pollution linked to the gases emitted from oil extraction operations.  

• Ali Mamouri has the scoop on Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani’s Wednesday meeting with his counterpart in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Masrour Barzani.

• Salim A. Essaid examines whether new Islamic finance-based coins can help restore faith in the cryptocurrency industry, which lost over a trillion dollars in value in 2022.

• The sinking value of the Iranian rial is putting additional pressure on Iran’s economy and society, Bijan Khajehpour writes in his latest Al-Monitor PRO memo.  

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