By Aaron Kliegman
President Joe Biden has been in office more than a month, and he still hasn’t called the prime minister of Israel, one of America’s closest allies.
This delay would seem less like a snub if Biden hadn’t already called so many of America’s other allies — and touted those calls publicly.
“I’ve spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends: Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia,” Biden announced earlier this month.
He never mentioned Israel. Which is especially striking since Biden has made “rebuilding” and nurturing America’s alliances the cornerstone of his foreign policy.
Biden has even called adversaries, such as the leaders of China and Russia. But not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Biden has been friends for decades.
This is even more strange since, in past administrations, the president called the Israeli prime minister within days of assuming office — well before mid-to-late February.
To be fair, other senior officials in the Biden administration have called their Israeli counterparts, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Plus, Netanyahu has downplayed Biden’s non-call, saying the US-Israel alliance is strong and enduring.
And, let’s be honest, Biden is more pro-Israel than his former boss, President Barack Obama, who had a personal and ideological animus toward the Jewish state (and certainly toward Netanyahu).
Some analysts have argued that, instead of snubbing Netanyahu, Biden is deemphasizing the importance of the Middle East, focusing instead on our European allies, North American neighbors, and most powerful rivals (China and Russia).
There’s just one problem: Biden and his team have spoken at length about returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, the administration has made diplomacy with Iran a top priority. And Israel is necessarily central to any America policy toward Iran — especially one seeking to revive policies which Jerusalem strongly opposes.
In other words, Biden’s team has shined a spotlight on the Middle East rather than ignored it.
But beyond any of this, Israel is critically important to the US as a strategic ally — a reality that should warrant a phone call.
Moreover, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and Biden has made a point of championing democracy and lamenting its erosion around the world. One would think he’d want to highlight the strength of a vibrant democracy thriving in the world’s least democratic region.
Biden’s non-call wouldn’t be as big a deal if his administration hadn’t already sent worrying signals about how America may treat Israel over the next four years.
Last week, for example, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki refused to say whether the Biden administration considers Israel an “important ally.” Instead, she gave a bizarre, rambling answer to the reporter who asked the question when a simple “yes” would have sufficed.
Earlier that week, Blinken wouldn’t endorse former President Donald Trump’s decision in 2019 to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategic region on Israel’s northern border previously controlled by Syria.
“The Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken said, “[but] legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at.”
Anyone with any sense of history, morality, or strategy in service of American interests will recognize that the Golan is, and should always be, under Israeli control. (To understand why, see here.)
While Blinken’s comments do nothing to change American policy, they leave the Biden administration’s stance on the Golan Heights ambiguous — for no good reason.
The risk is Biden will, like Obama did, ignore Iran’s violent imperialism across the Middle East in order to facilitate nuclear negotiations with the regime. This too would pose a severe threat to the Jewish state, which Iran seeks to destroy.
Combine all these elements, and there’s reason to be concerned about Biden’s approach to Israel, Iran, and the Middle East as a whole.
Obama infamously wanted to put “daylight” between the US and Israel — a pillar of what became a disastrous policy defined by anything but peace in the Middle East. Could Biden want to do a similar thing to the US-Israel alliance?
Probably not to the same degree, but we’ll see. Biden’s foreign policy team is a recycled version of Obama’s — full of the same people, just with a different person at the top and a few replacements. If personnel is policy, as the saying in Washington goes, then the alliance may be in for some turbulence.
Biden could relieve some of these concerns by picking up the phone and calling his old friend. They could talk about sports. They could talk about the weather. They could talk about both with some policy mixed in. The call just needs to happen.
There’s been plenty of speculation as to why Biden hasn’t reached out to Netanyahu. Perhaps, with Israel’s elections coming up, Biden wants to signal to the Israeli people that they should elect someone else who he’s more eager to work with. Perhaps he wants to improve relations with the Palestinians.
Regardless, the White House has clearly made a calculated decision not to call.
Whatever the reason, the decision is strange. And, more importantly, it feeds into the American public’s justified concerns that Biden will pursue a damaging policy toward our Israeli friends.
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