There are 195 countries in the world. US President Joe Biden, now in his second week in office, has not called 188 of them. Only in Israel, however, are people fretting about what it means that he has not yet phoned.
Thirteen days after becoming president, Biden has yet to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But he has also not yet called the presidents of Panama or Argentina. Biden hasn’t picked up the phone to call the prime ministers of Italy, Spain, Poland or the Netherlands. No African leader has gotten a call, nor have the prime ministers of India or Australia, nor even the president of China – and China is kind of an important country.
A cursory Google search does not show undue concern in those countries about the state of their relations with the US or with its new president because the phone has not yet rung with the White House on the line. Only among Jews does this become the grist for hand-wringing commentary and finger wagging from opposition politicians.
As Meretz Party head Nitzan Horowitz wrote on his Facebook page: “Biden is screening Netanyahu’s calls... Netanyahu is now reaping the rotten fruit of the rift he created with the Democrats.”
Really, is that what this means?
Or maybe it just means – despite what many of us think – we are not Biden’s nor the world’s top priority. Maybe someone should let Horowitz know that after Biden was elected on November 3, he spoke with both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin two weeks later, his 11th and 12th post-election calls with world leaders. So what does that say about “screening Netanyahu’s calls?”
That Biden hasn’t called doesn’t mean he doesn’t like us, or that he is angry at Netanyahu, or that tomorrow he is going to reenter the Iranian nuclear deal or force Israel back to the 1967 lines. It means that Israel, and the Mideast, are simply not at the top of his agenda.
Which we all knew anyhow, what with America struggling under the weight of the novel coronavirus and a domestic divide unlike anything it has seen since the Vietnam War.
But that does not mean no one in the White House is paying attention. National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat was the third colleague phoned by new US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin phoned their Israeli counterparts last week.
So who has Biden called? He called Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which is natural, given that those two countries are the US’s contiguous neighbors.
He then turned to Europe, where he called America’s close ally, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, followed by the leaders of European powerhouses France and Germany. A call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came next, an obvious move to highlight Biden’s commitment to an alliance that his predecessor questioned. Then he called Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The Japanese, like Israel, were apparently waiting with a stopwatch, literally, to see when he called, and the media made a big deal of the fact that he called Suga at 12:47 a.m. Tokyo time. Who calls at that time, which is 10:47 a.m. the previous morning in Washington? Someone, wrote the Nikkei Asia, whose team is “conscious about keeping the 78-year-old leader, the oldest president to occupy the Oval Office, well rested and in good health.”
With the possible exception of the Japanese, it is hard to find indications elsewhere that countries were on edge to the degree some in Israel and in the Jewish world were, wondering when a call from Biden would take place. And this says more about the Israeli and Jewish psyche than about Biden.
IT SAYS that the country – with all its military might, with all its technological and scientific prowess, with all its economic strength, with its position solid as the most powerful state in the region – still feels insecure. It still needs that warm, public embrace from the US president to feel good, to feel loved, to feel protected, and to feel safe.
If the president doesn’t call immediately, he must be angry. Only Jews – with their history – think that way. Maybe he’s not angry, just with other things on his mind.
This syndrome of wanting – of needing – a bear hug from the US president is not new, and it is very understandable.
We don’t want the US president to like us like he likes South Korea or New Zealand. We want him to love us special, to feel that love welling up in his gut. And if he doesn’t, or if he doesn’t show his affection to the degree we feel comfortable with, we begin to worry.
That was one of the problems Israelis had with Barack Obama. We didn’t felt that he felt anything special toward us. Bill Clinton gave us that feeling, as did Donald Trump – and Israel responded to them with overwhelming warmth.
Now there are good historical reasons for Israel’s desire for a special hug from the US president.
First of all, history has instilled in the Jewish psyche the importance and utility of having strong protectors, as well as the need to be concerned when one powerful leader who impacts on our fate is replaced by another.
And for Israel, having the US squarely in its corner is something that has been a tremendous strategic asset that has reverberated throughout the region. Over the years, it was not only important for Israelis to feel and see the sympathy of US presidents, but it was equally important for other countries in the region – those that wanted to see Israel’s demise – see and feel that as well; to see and feel that the Jewish state had the strong, unstinting support of the world’s most powerful country. That sent a powerful message.
And it’s a powerful message Israel still yearns to see conveyed. But it is also possible to read too much into things and to make too much out of cosmetic gestures.
Netanyahu, in a message he taped last week for Holocaust Remembrance Day, said that some things – like antisemitism – never change. But, he added, “We the Jewish people have changed… Today we are firmly rooted in our ancient land, free and strong in our independent state.”
Agonizing about where we are on Biden’s list of people to call is an indication that we have not yet fully internalized that message. Because a nation “firmly rooted in its ancient land, free and strong in its independent state” does not worry overmuch whether the leader of another land – as powerful as he may be – calls it first or fifty-first.
A nation that feels free and strong and independent realizes that its fate is first and foremost is in its own hands, not in the hands of others, even the president of the United States.
Biden will call sooner or later. The Jewish people, meanwhile, should stop obsessing where Israel is on his to-call list or how much he does or does not like us, or Netanyahu.
Israel’s fate depends on the decisions it makes and how it acts, not – anymore – on the whims of one world leader or another. As a nation we would do well to internalize that change.