The White House insists President Joe Biden will “soon” speak with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the wait, which has now stretched beyond three weeks, is raising questions about whether there is a motive behind the delay.
Multiple US and Israeli officials insist there is a long-standing relationship between the two men and constant contact at other levels of government. But calls placed to leaders in Asia and Europe reflect the Biden administration’s belief that confronting China and Russia as well as repairing relations and damaged alliances are among its top priorities, multiple administration sources said.
While Israel is still a critical ally, one source familiar with the White House thinking said there is some sense of payback in making Netanyahu wait for a call.
The Israeli leader’s cool treatment of former President Barack Obama, his close alignment with former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, as well as the length of time it took him to congratulate Biden on his victory are not without significance, said the source.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, echoed that sentiment in a tweet, saying, “What a surprise that after Bibi spent years relentlessly undermining the Obama-Biden Administration he’s not at the top of the call list.”
Biden and Netanyahu last spoke on November 17, when the Israeli leader congratulated then-President-elect Biden on his victory. The call was noteworthy because Netanyahu had struggled to find the rights words to congratulate Biden a week earlier, talking about his personal connection between the two without calling Biden the President-elect.
Publicly, however, the White House has said that the President is making calls to fellow leaders by region and will soon be reaching out to those in the Middle East.
Biden, who has made 11 calls to foreign leaders plus the NATO secretary general so far, has also deployed his national security team to quickly engage with Israel out of the gates. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi twice. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has spoken with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. There is constant communication between the governments, multiple officials familiar with US-Israeli relations said.
The fact that Biden has not yet called Netanyahu is not a cause for concern, five of the officials said, pointing to the numerous other conversations between the governments.
A source with knowledge of the relationship says the lack of a phone call has not affected the dynamics of the relationship. It is not a point of friction between the countries during ongoing conversations, according to the source. “That’s part of being normal and normalized relations,” the source said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at Thursday’s White House briefing that “the President looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s obviously somebody that he has a long-standing relationship with and obviously there’s an important relationship that the United States has with Israel on the security front and as a key partner in the region.”
“He’ll be talking with him soon,” Psaki added, but declined to provide a specific date or time on when they would speak.
‘I presume he will call me. Believe me, I have no doubt about it.’
In a rare press conference from the long-time Israeli leader Monday, Netanyahu downplayed the delay. “[President Biden] calls leaders in the order that he finds acceptable, North America, then Europe,” Netanyahu said. “He hasn’t reached the Middle East yet. I presume he will call me. Believe me, I have no doubt about it.”
Netanyahu went on to say that the alliance between Israel and the United States was strong, even though “it doesn’t mean we will agree on everything.”
Meanwhile, Israel is waiting.
The country’s former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon tweeted directly to Biden Wednesday, prompting a face palm moment across parts of the Israeli political spectrum.
“Joe Biden,” Danon tweeted, “you have called world leaders from #Canada, #Mexico, #UK, #India, #Japan, #France, #Germany, #Australia, #SouthKorea, #Russia. Might now be the time to call the leader of #Israel, the closest ally of the #US? The PM’s number is: 972-2-670555.”
Danon told Israeli Army Radio on Thursday that he “didn’t formulate the tweet, but I take responsibility for it,” adding that “the choice of words was not successful, but I stand behind the message.”
Three officials said the Danon tweet was largely driven by internal Israeli politics and long-simmering tension between Danon and Netanyahu. But the blowback came swiftly, with many using Danon’s tweet to interpret Biden’s silence as politically driven.
Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, prodded Danon, tweeting, “glad you’re seeing that Netanyahu making Israel an affiliate of the Republican party has been noticed and has consequences.”
As others took to Twitter to chastise Danon for “trolling” the US President, Israelis rapped him for “embarrassing us in front of other nations,” and the spokesman for opposition leader Yair Lapid added his own message to Danon’s tweet to Biden: “Sorry about this. Signed, Everyone in Israel.”
Biden is ‘right sizing’
Current and former US officials point to the decades-long, close relationship between Netanyahu and Biden, and say that if there’s any signal being sent, it’s about US strategic priorities. Biden is “right sizing” the US relationship with Israel, they say, and that with the challenges posed by China, Russia, climate change and other problems, the Middle East is not a top priority.
Aaron David Miller, a CNN contributor who is a former Mideast peace negotiator and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested US priorities have quickly changed in the Biden administration’s first few weeks in office.
“Memo to all interested parties,” he tweeted. “A call will come. But a clear message is being sent. Netanyahu was Trump’s 3rd call. To quote Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“I feel confident that this is not about Israel or about anything that happened in the Obama or Trump years,” said Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel. “It is simply about what Biden’s priorities are: Covid, economic recovery, climate change, and racial justice. And on foreign policy, it is revitalizing core alliances in Europe and Asia, restoring US leadership on multilateral issues, preparing for the challenge of China, and confronting the challenge of Russia. He has been absolutely disciplined on those priorities. But I’m sure the call will happen fairly soon.”
The Biden administration has also sent early reassuring signals to Israel on a number of fronts, making it publicly clear they will not roll back some of Trump’s more controversial policy moves, including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declaring the holy city the capital of Israel. And Blinken has made clear the US will stand by the normalization agreements the Trump administration brokered between Israel and countries in the Gulf region and elsewhere.
But Blinken’s comments about the Golan Heights to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday raised some eyebrows. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and has administered it ever since, but under international law it is considered occupied territory. Trump broke with international consensus when he recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
Asked if the Biden administration will continue to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel, Blinken said, “Leaving aside the legalities, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security as long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself … over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we would look at. We are nowhere near that.”
The next day, Netanyahu said: “The Golan Heights has been and will continue to be a part of the State of Israel. With an agreement or without an agreement, we are not leaving the Golan. It will remain under the sovereignty of the State of Israel.”