Disconnect Between Washington, Jerusalem Becoming Increasingly Uncomfortable
Deafening silence growing louder by the day as Israelis wait for President Joe Biden to place a call to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Russia. India. Mexico. Japan. The list goes on and on. President Joe Biden has spoken with nearly a dozen world leaders since taking office over three weeks ago, but it’s the list of those who have not had the pleasure of talking with the leader of the free world that’s making headlines.
On Wednesday, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, tweeted a controversial message at the new president, which immediately drew the attention of many in Jerusalem and around the world.
Echoing the growing concerns of many in Israel, Danon, who just recently returned from his assignment in New York, listed the countries whose leaders the president has already spoken with, before addressing him personally: “Joe Biden… Might it now be time to call the leader of Israel, the closest ally of the US?” He also listed a phone number for the prime minister in the tweet.
The viral tweet, while laughed off by many as a cheap online stunt, underscores a very real and troubling sentiment among Israeli officials: The US president is snubbing Israel.
Though the two spoke several weeks after President Biden was declared the winner of the November elections, he and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have yet to hold their formal first talk as heads of state.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked about the tweet on Thursday, said that Biden will be talking to Netanyahu soon.
“The president looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s obviously somebody that he has a long-standing relationship with,” Psaki said at the daily news briefing.
“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,” Psaki said. “He’ll be talking with him soon – I don’t have a specific date or time for you on that call yet.”
Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies, has normally been near the top of any new president’s call sheet. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both telephoned their counterparts in Jerusalem within days of entering the White House.
Yet Netanyahu’s perceived undermining of the Obama-Biden administration, which reached a crescendo in his 2015 address to a joint session of Congress in which he slammed the Iranian nuclear deal then-President Obama was advancing, seems to have taken its toll.
After four years of the White House being in virtual lockstep with the prime minister on a host of issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran’s nuclear program, Washington’s new boss is expected to chart quite a different path.
Netanyahu has insisted the two veteran politicians have maintained a close personal relationship over their decades in public service, and earlier this week, when asked about possible tensions between himself and the president, replied: “I spoke with Biden after he won, and I presume he’ll call me again soon. Our 40-year-old alliance is stronger than ever.”
Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel during the Obama years, advises caution when assessing the countries’ relations.
“I expect the call to take place in a week or so,” Shapiro told The Media Line.
He pointed to recent calls between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as Israeli Intelligence Agency Chief Yossi Cohen’s visit to Washington last week, as proof that the nations’ close cooperation is intact.
CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth Mackenzie’s visit to Israel less than a week after Inauguration Day is further evidence the alliance is alive and well, Shapiro said.
The message is: ‘There’s a new White House, a new president, and the special Trump-Netanyahu relationship of the past is over’
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But others believe the disconnect between the two leaders is far from trivial.
“Biden’s failure to contact Netanyahu is an intentional message to Israel. Everything is calculated,” Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US Middle East policy at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.
“The message is: ‘There’s a new White House, a new president, and the special Trump-Netanyahu relationship of the past is over,’” Gilboa said.
“Until March 23, we should expect very limited communication between the two, maybe one phone call, that’s it,” he said, referring to the date of Israel’s upcoming elections. He added that President Biden “doesn’t want to intervene in any way in the Israeli elections.”
Unlike his predecessor during last year’s three election cycles, the new president probably won’t lavish Netanyahu with political “gifts” – such as friendly summits and generous diplomatic gestures – in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Danon’s tweet, which went viral and was picked up by news outlets worldwide, is seen by some as not much more than an intra-party ploy.
A longtime Likud member, the former diplomat is “looking for a way to get back into local politics” these days, ahead of the March elections, a Likud official told The Media Line, and is thought to have used the very public social media platform to leverage Netanyahu into carving a role for him inside party headquarters.
Biden’s perceived snub, meanwhile, is not relegated to Israel alone.
While the new resident of the White House has called his European allies, his close continental neighbors and US friends and adversaries in Asia, the countries of the Middle East – including some of Washington’s closest regional partners – have been left hanging.
The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, though they have held high-level conversations with some members of the new Biden Administration, have all yet to receive the anticipated phone call from the president himself.
“Biden has been focused on the most pressing issues that were laid out in the campaign – [Washington’s] alliance with NATO and Asian allies, handling the coronavirus, and not much beyond that. There’s no real surprise here,” Shapiro said, outlining the White House’s priorities.
The administration is talking about the Middle East. They’re discussing negotiations with Iran and changes in American approach to the Palestinian issue. They’re reviewing arms sales to the UAE, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. They just want to wait on the call to Netanyahu
Gilboa, a former adviser to Israel’s foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office, dismissed the White House’s “excuses.”
“It’s nonsense,” he said. “The administration is talking about the Middle East. They’re discussing negotiations with Iran and changes in American approach to the Palestinian issue. They’re reviewing arms sales to the UAE, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. They just want to wait on the call to Netanyahu.”
Whether intentional or not, as the days go by, the deafening silence between Washington and Jerusalem is becoming harder and harder to ignore.