US President Joe Biden still hasn’t called likely prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as of Sunday evening, and there are those who are taking this as a sign of poor relations and a crisis in US-Israel relations that is just waiting around the corner.
It’s true that Biden is not showing the enthusiasm he had for former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, whom he found the time to call much sooner. Biden also took almost a month to call Netanyahu after the former entered office last year. Netanyahu called Biden to congratulate him 11 hours after his November 2020 election victory, which was noticed by the media, but in the retrospect was not that late.
That relations between Netanyahu and Biden will be worse than those between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Biden is taken almost as a given, since Netanyahu is right-wing and enjoys good relationships with many Republicans – perhaps the first prominent foreign figure to congratulate him was Texas Senator Ted Cruz – while Biden is a Democrat, and in light of the very bad blood between Netanyahu and the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president.
Yet there are a few reasons not to take the delay as a harbinger of doom, nor to think that Biden and Netanyahu are headed for a collision course in the vein of the Obama years.
Why US-Israel ties not in danger, Biden and Netanyahu not headed for a clash
First of all, the midterms are on Tuesday, and Biden began taking an active part in trying to get Americans to vote for Democrats. The projections at the time of this writing are not good for the president’s party. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be able to take half an hour to call Netanyahu; but his attentions are likely focused elsewhere.
If there’s a “red wave,” as some are anticipating, he’s likely to continue to be caught up in domestic politics for the rest of his term in office, with less of an ability to push a foreign policy agenda in places like Israel where it is not as urgent than, say, Ukraine and Russia.
That lack of urgency is also a big factor in why the naysayers may be exaggerating. Perhaps the greatest potential point of tension between Netanyahu and Biden in early 2021 was Iran. The Biden administration seemed to be in a rush to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Netanyahu saw as an a potentially existential danger to Israel, making every attempt to stop it from its inception and to influence former president Donald Trump to leave it.
In the year-and-a-half since Netanyahu left the Prime Minister’s Office and is due to return to it, the Biden administration came very, very close to reentering the Iran deal, but was not willing to cave on all of the Islamic Republic’s last-minute demands. Then, the massive riots against the regime and its crackdown, especially on women, have given pause to even some of the greatest nuclear deal supporters in the West. The Biden administration has said the matter is not currently on its agenda.
The West Bank is an area in which Netanyahu and Biden probably will clash. There is an ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, and whether a Netanyahu government will respond to it differently militarily remains to be seen, but Washington has already subtly expressed its disapproval of what the Lapid government is doing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken already drew an equivalence between the Palestinians attacking civilians and the Israeli soldiers trying to stop them in the readouts of his phone calls to Lapid and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, calling “for all parties to urgently de-escalate the situation.”
While Defense Minister Benny Gantz has blocked the advancement of new construction in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, none of the candidates to replace him would be likely to do that; they’re on a spectrum from supportive to extremely enthusiastic on the settlement front.
Biden has been a vocal opponent of settlements for the past 50 years, including a famously heated exchange in which the then-senator threatened aid to Israel over the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and the apocryphal Menachem Begin quote “I am not a Jew with trembling knees” was supposedly stated.
Then there’s the Ben-Gvir factor. The Biden administration is likely to snub him, in light of his calls to deport “disloyal” Israeli Arabs, past membership in Kach, long designated a terrorist organization in the US, and incitement convictions. Notably, Washington does not seem to have a similar policy towards far-right leaders in other democratic countries.
In any case, the impact of Itamar Ben-Gvir will depend on what position he receives. The Public Security Ministry, his preferred portfolio, is responsible for areas in which Washington expresses its concern, such as keeping order on the Temple Mount. But even then, it’s instructive to remember when Avigdor Liberman was essentially persona non grata in Washington for much of his time as foreign minister, as he was viewed as a right-wing extremist; the problems between Netanyahu and Obama had nothing to do with Liberman.
Perhaps the best indicator that Netanyahu and Biden are not about to go head-to-head is their attitudes towards one another. The two leaders have known each other for 40 years, since the former was deputy Israeli ambassador in Washington and the latter was on the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Biden has often said: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” When Biden arrived in Israel in July, he was visibly pleased to see Netanyahu on the tarmac, showing him greater affection than anyone else on the receiving line.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, portrayed Biden as a friend of Israel in his autobiography published last month. In any confrontations with the Obama administration in which Biden was involved, the now-president was described as trying to de-escalate and showing understanding of Israel’s side.
More broadly, Biden is someone who tries to work out disagreements with foreign leaders behind the scenes, rather than have spats out in the open. Netanyahu is more confrontational than that – in fact, he criticized the departing government for what he saw as insufficiently taking its objections to the Iran deal public – but recent interviews with the US media show that he wants to get along with Biden.
It won’t all be smooth sailing for Netanyahu and Biden, but the doomsday predictions are premature. There’s a good chance that things will be fine.