President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, the first time the two leaders had spoken since Biden’s inauguration. The delay in communication was unusual and raised questions about Biden’s attitude toward Netanyahu and Israel.
We should not read too much into Biden putting off this call for so long. After all, he inherited perhaps the most dysfunctional federal government in living memory from a Trump administration that left the federal bureaucracy in disarray. The Trump team also refused or dragged its feet about the transition to Biden, and left its successors a wide array of destructive and unpopular policies, foreign and domestic, to try to reverse, including repairing relationships with European allies badly damaged by four years of Trump. With the COVID-19 pandemic still a major crisis and an economy still struggling to recover, Biden has a full agenda, even compared to most incoming presidents.
Still, this was a one-hour phone call with the leader of a country that remains a close ally and a political priority for both parties. It’s hard to imagine that, if Biden really wanted to make this call earlier, he couldn’t have found the time. So what was behind this?
Examining the circumstances around the delayed call and the actions of the Biden administration in its first few weeks in office yields some answers.
First, we shouldn’t ignore the tit-for-tat element here. Netanyahu was slow to acknowledge Biden’s victory in November and didn’t call to congratulate him for two weeks. He made no secret of his attachment to Donald Trump during the election, and the contrast between his effusive praise for Trump and his frequent attacks on and efforts to undermine Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama is stark indeed.
So there’s little doubt that Biden was personally disinclined to prioritize his conversation with Netanyahu. Although the two men have known each other for decades and have always had a good working relationship, it is likely that Netanyahu’s treatment of Obama and his open embrace of Trump and the Republican Party have changed Biden’s view of his Israeli counterpart.
There’s also a policy element here, particularly on Iran, where Biden has said he wishes to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA, and Netanyahu is still bitterly opposed.
Back in 2014, Biden famously stated that, “There’s absolutely no daylight — none — between us and the Israelis on the question of Israel’s security. But as friends, we have an obligation to speak honestly with one another; to talk about -– not avoid -— the tactical disagreements we have, and we have tactical disagreements; to lay out for one another each of our perspectives.”
But today, those disagreements have driven a wedge between the Netanyahu government and the Democratic Party. It begins with the Iran deal. Netanyahu collaborated with then-Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner to arrange an address to a joint session of Congress without Obama’s knowledge and with the express purpose of attacking the president’s highest foreign policy priority.
But the disagreements are not limited to Iran. On the campaign trail last May, Biden told a group of American Jewish leaders that “I do not support annexation” of the West Bank and that “Israel needs to stop the threats of annexation and stop settlement activity because it will choke off any hope of peace.” It was clearly a warning to Netanyahu that if he won the election, he would demand the reversal of such actions. Netanyahu backed off annexation, and this was surely a key part of what brought him to that decision.
Still, in his early days in office, Biden’s team has made it clear that it will pivot completely back to support for a two-state solution, which both Netanyahu and Trump abandoned. But while Biden has announced efforts to re-engage with the Palestinians, he has offered no details about his plans for pursuing a solution. This would seem to indicate that Biden does not see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as an immediate priority, particularly as Israel and the Palestinians have elections coming up in the near future.
Israel heads to its fourth election in the past two years, and this time Netanyahu has a more uphill battle than ever before. While his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of electoral defeat has become legendary, polls currently show Netanyahu far from the number of seats he and his allies would need for a majority in the Knesset.
Biden certainly wants to avoid being a factor in the Israeli election, another stark contrast to Trump who was proud to feature himself in support of Netanyahu. He will need to work closely with the victor, and, while the alternatives to Netanyahu are unlikely to break radically with his policies regarding the Palestinians, they might be more amenable to working with Biden, rather than against him, with respect to Iran, even if they are wary of the nuclear deal.
Palestinian elections are likely to be more complicated for Biden, and as they are to be held in the late spring and over the summer, it is much too soon to even guess at what they might produce. Biden’s team is certainly hoping that the votes shake up Palestinian politics in a way they can capitalize on to revive the peace process. But no matter what the eventual outcome, for now, Biden simply wants to rebuild a working relationship with the Palestinian leadership. Building some goodwill, if he can do that, will be helpful no matter what happens in the Palestinian elections.
Given the other priorities the Biden administration is juggling, they are clearly content to walk the tightrope of trying to revive a process geared toward a two-state solution that more and more observers deem impossible while not allowing the issue to occupy more space on the administration’s agenda, as it is prone to do.
Biden’s lukewarm attitude toward Netanyahu should not be interpreted as anything more than irritation with the prime minister himself. It is clear that it has not changed Biden’s fundamentally pro-Israel orientation.
Contrast Biden’s actions toward Israel with those toward Saudi Arabia. Biden has cut support for the Saudi war in Yemen. His disapproval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is clear, but White House spokesperson Jen Psaki also noted this week that "We've made clear from the beginning that we're going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia."
While this is directed primarily at MBS personally, and the mud he has splashed on the U.S.-Saudi relationship with his handling of the war in Yemen and his murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the shift in U.S. support for the Yemen war represents a fundamental change in policy. And it is a policy that started not with Trump, but with Obama. This is a much stronger rebuke than a delayed call with Netanyahu represents.
Still, Biden has made it clear that Saudi security concerns are still a priority and that he will meet directly with King Salman in the future. Like Netanyahu, MBS is paying the price for his cozy relationship with Trump. But it is clear that the damage to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has suffered much more damage than that with Israel.