The phone call that finally happened on Wednesday between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu had taken on colossal proportions for something whose existence was primarily defined by its absence. Netanyahu had been asked about it on multiple occasions, as had White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki and State Department spokesman Ned Price, and on both sides of the ocean there had been denials that the lack of a phone call was reflective of anything substantive. This qualified as a tempest in a teapot, but that has not stopped endless speculation about whether the U.S.-Israel relationship has been damaged by the delay.
It is fatuous to suggest that Biden’s silence was indicative of a downgrade in Israel’s status as an American ally. Even before yesterday, there had been phone calls from the cabinet level on down across multiple agencies, an in-person visit to Israel from the commander of CENTCOM, and repeated statements about American-Israeli partnership. Those who pointed to Psaki’s hesitation to refer to Israel as an important ally either purposely or ignorantly elided that it was in response to a question that specifically lumped Israel together with Saudi Arabia, the latter of which was clearly driving Psaki’s reluctance; not even one minute prior she had said about Netanyahu, “Obviously, we have a long and important relationship with Israel, and the president has known him and has been working on a range of issues that there’s a mutual commitment to for some time.” The day before she said, “The president looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s obviously somebody that he has a longstanding relationship with. And obviously there’s a[n] important relationship that the United States has with Israel on the security front and as a key partner in the region.” And on Tuesday, she confirmed that when Biden begins calling leaders of countries in the Middle East, the first phone call would go to Netanyahu (as it actually did), and further added, “Israel is, of course, an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship. And our team is fully engaged—not at the head-of-state […] level quite yet, but very soon. But our team is fully engaged, having constant conversations at many levels with the Israelis.”
But that does not suggest that there was absolutely nothing going on here at all, especially given how much it had blown up into an issue, even if what is going on is not what the alarmists have suggested. As with everything, there is context involved, some of which has nothing to do with Israel directly and some of which does. The pertinent questions are whether this says something about Biden administration policy writ large, and whether Israel will draw the appropriate conclusions from the unfolding drama.
As Dan Shapiro noted, Biden was crystal clear about his foreign policy priorities–competition with China, countering Russian aggression, reinforcing NATO and Asian alliances–and his phone calls have reflected those precisely. Anyone pointing to a call to Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as falling outside that scope and thus proof that Biden is ignoring Israel must be woefully ignorant of the map of the North American continent. Biden said he was deprioritizing the Middle East and he has done precisely that. This is not a case of Biden calling Israeli antagonists, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Mahmoud Abbas, and sending a clear message of snubbing Netanyahu, or even of repeating President Obama’s mistake of visiting the region but skipping Israel. While the lack of immediate and prioritized attention undoubtedly was an unpleasant dash of cold water for Netanyahu given President Trump’s approach, this was not being done in a foreign policy vacuum intended to single out Israel.
And while there was and still remains a strong argument for Biden to engage deeply with Israel on the question of how to approach Iran, Biden has confounded expectations so far not by leaving Israel out of the circle but by not creating a circle at all. Biden has not rushed back into entering the JCPOA, has not immediately lifted Trump’s sanctions on Iran, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken has ruled out returning to the JCPOA until Iran comes back into full compliance rather than the other way around. This is a more hawkish line than many expected Biden to take, but it also mitigates the immediate necessity to confer with Netanyahu in order to resolve any differences over the American approach.
This is both the generous and most reasonable way of interpreting Biden’s delayed phone call, as it places it in the context of the hyper-disciplined Biden team’s wider foreign policy approach. But there is a less generous interpretation that cannot be blithely dismissed, particularly as it may also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as time goes on. Since Biden’s election, there have been multiple public admonishments from Israeli officials about how Biden should act. The day after the Capitol insurrection, Netanyahu called for Biden to continue Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and not to reenter the JCPOA. On Inauguration Day, an unnamed “very senior Israeli official” was quoted as saying, “If Biden adopts Obama’s plan, we will have nothing to talk about with him.” One week later, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi went significantly further, stating in a widely covered speech, “A return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, or even if it is a similar accord with several improvements, is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view.” There is no question that Israeli leaders have every right to express their opinions on the Iran deal issue, but when the Israeli government extolls the virtues of a “no daylight” policy that keeps all disagreements behind closed doors yet acts in a manner suggesting that this commitment is only supposed to flow in one direction, it is somewhere between naïve and imperious to assume that it will not garner a negative response.
Then there is the issue of garden variety Israeli political developments. The tender bids for Givat Hamatos, one of two potential areas for Israeli construction along with E-1 that have been historical redlines for the U.S., were conveniently awarded a few hours before Biden was sworn in. The Jewish National Fund (Kerem Kayemet L’Yisrael), a quasi-governmental body in Israel unlike in the U.S., has approved a new policy paving the way for it to openly purchase land in the West Bank for settlement expansion. As he did before the first election in April 2019, Netanyahu not only brokered a merger between smaller right-wing parties in order to get the Kahanist neo-fascist Otzma Yehudit over the electoral threshold and into the Knesset, but this time he signed a vote surplus agreement with them, literally ensuring that surplus Otzma votes directly benefit Likud and vice versa. All of these are developments that likely would have drawn White House or State Department condemnation in the past, and yet they have been met with either silence or nebulous statements about the need for all sides to refrain from unhelpful unilateral actions.
It may be that Biden truly does not want to get drawn into endless arguments regarding Middle East developments and is content to largely ignore all of these things, or it may be that he was deliberately giving Netanyahu the cold shoulder in order to send a message. Whatever the story is, it is difficult to see how Israel benefits from using a delayed phone call to create an actual fight with Biden. Ultimately Israel needs American help on a variety of fronts right now, from whatever unfolds with Iran to keeping the ICC off Israel’s back. If Biden seems disinclined to prioritize Israel at the outset amidst a range of what he views as more pressing foreign policy issues, his mind is unlikely to be changed following Israeli muttering that he is out to get Netanyahu. Israeli officials should stop worrying about how long the phone call took to arrive, and make sure that now that it has taken place, they aren’t providing anyone in Washington with a catalogue of insults to the new president of their most critical ally for which to apologize.
On the U.S. side, whatever weight is assigned to these various explanations–from the innocuous to less innocuous–Biden does run the risk of stirring up heightened Israeli antagonism whether or not it is warranted. Israelis and their leaders are sensitive to the perception of slights or lack of acceptance, and as evidenced by the Abraham Accords and even Obama’s second term visit to Israel, a little love also goes a long way. Israel is not high on Biden’s list of priorities, and he is likely annoyed about some of what he has seen over the past month. But just as the Israeli government needs to swallow its pride and start things off on the right foot, Biden should do the same and not allow this molehill to turn into a mountain, even if he’d rather not get bogged down with Netanyahu quite yet.
Don’t call me….
Er, um….Arabs on Line 1, Mr. President. (At least some of them….)
To be sure, they were ignored the first time around; and there’s EVERY reason to believe they’ll be ignored this time, too, though perhaps more “diplomatically” (i.e., with honeyed, sugar-coated reassurances).