Bibi: ‘Joe, glad you called, I was starting to worry!’

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Bibi: ‘Joe, glad you called, I was starting to worry!’

After Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new US President Joe Biden held a 'friendly and warm', we look at the new bilateral relations between the countries

Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Mrs. Sara Netanyahu, upon arrival for his bilateral meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on January 13, 2013. (Photo By Matty Stern/State Department/Sipa USA)
Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Mrs. Sara Netanyahu, upon arrival for his bilateral meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on January 13, 2013. (Photo By Matty Stern/State Department/Sipa USA)

Joe Biden finally spoke late last week with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one month into the US president’s first term.

The conversation was “friendly and warm”, Netanyahu told an Israeli electorate that places a high value on healthy relations with the US. His tweet, in Hebrew and accompanied by a photo of himself on the phone grinning, comes weeks before an Israeli election.

The delay to this first exchange caused anxiety among officials in Jerusalem. Many of the Jewish state’s supporters around the world have been left feeling uneasy too. 

“Nobody really knows what is going on in the mind of President Biden, but everyone is asking,” said analyst Shlomo Brom, former deputy to Israel’s national security adviser, suggesting that the American is trying to take Netanyahu down a peg.

Donald Trump phoned Netanyahu within days of taking office in 2017, and quickly ushered in policies that delighted him, like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. When it comes to Biden, a White House spokeswoman insisted that the delayed first call did not constitute “an intentional dis”. Yet according to Brom, a senior scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies, Biden has an axe to grind.

He notes that Netanyahu showed “resistance” to the last Democrat president, Barack Obama, and then appeared to throw in his political lot with Trump. That meant Biden was pulled in two directions when it came to deciding how to act. 

Brom commented: “Biden has a long history of support with Israel, and has a basic empathy with the country, but on the other hand, he has an antipathy to Netanyahu personally because of way he conducted himself towards the American political arena, showing resistance to President Obama and then favour for Trump.”

So, Biden called but he made Netanyahu wait. “What Biden wants to do is educate Mr Netanyahu, to show him there’s a price for everything and that there is a price for his conduct,” said Brom.

Netanyahu’s pride aside, does any of this matter?

What many of Israel’s supporters fear is not that Biden will show antagonism: it is important to remember that all the normal diplomatic and security channels are wide open, and functioning well, unaffected by the change in administration. 

Furthermore, Biden has a deep appreciation of Israel and has heaped praise on its founders, on the creativity that has built one of the most “innovative societies on earth”, and on the IDF. As the relationship between the men develops, he is unlikely to let his disappointment with Netanyahu get in the way of doing what he considers best for Israel. 

On the other hand, personal dynamics play a large part in politics, as Netanyahu himself stressed in his last election campaign. The Likud party posted billboards of the PM smiling with Trump, showcasing his strong personal connection with the then-president as a factor that should compel Israelis to vote for him. The message was that a good connection with the US President is good for Israel. 

Biden has no interest in being cast as a prop in Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, and it seems he is being cautious about any gesture that can be interpreted – or spun – as an embrace ahead of the election. 

This may have contributed to his delay in picking up the phone, along with his desire to assert himself on Iran. Netanyahu angered many Democrats in a Congress speech of 2015 when he blasted the nuclear deal with Iran, which Obama strongly backed.

Now, six years later, and following Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Biden wants to revive the agreement in some form. Jerusalem is concerned, and Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the US, indicated on Tuesday that if the US does re-enter the deal, Israel may take its own path.
He told a radio interviewer that Israel “will not be able to be part of such a process if the new administration returns to that deal”. 

Udi Sommer, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, believes that Biden’s aides want to keep the Israeli elections and the Iran deal as low on the president’s agenda as possible for the now. “They realise that elections are very high-stake and don’t want to have any footprint on them,” he said. “Regarding Iran, when you talk to me of your closest allies about their concerns, it can limit you. For now, Biden is focused on domestic issues and doesn’t want to be limited on Iran when he turns to the matter.”

But Sommer thought people should not jump to the conclusion that Biden’s approach will be the same as his Democratic predecessor, saying: “People say it’s going to be ‘Obama 2.0’, but people in this administration realise that reality has changed in the past four years, and this is good for Netanyahu.”

On Iran, he said Biden’s people realise that the nuclear deal was lacking in two respects, and will be keen to fix this in any revived agreement. “One issue was that after the deal Iran still felt able to use its proxies like Hezbollah freely and with hardly any constraints, and this was a major loophole,” said Sommer. “Another loophole was the freedom of Iran to develop ballistic capabilities, even if not nuclear.”

Taking a wider view of the region, “during Obama and before, the paradigm was always that solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the prerequisite for changing things between Israel and the Arab world. This is out of the window, it’s completely gone, now that we have seen the Abraham Accords and normalisation with the United Arab
Emirates and elsewhere.”

Sommer did not have an insight into what was said when Biden finally called Bibi, but suggested that the new administration will have a new take on both the Israeli–Palestinian issue and Iran compared with Obama. “Biden comes with the world view of the Obama administration, but the reality is that after four years of Trump, things are very different, and we won’t be seeing copy-paste policies.”

  •  Additional reporting by JTA

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