Political sources: Biden avoids giving Netanyahu election boost with call

Biden has called America’s direct neighbors in weeks since his inauguration, as well as major leaders in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, but has not called anyone in the Middle East.

US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: ANDREW HARNIK/YOAV DUDUKEVITCH/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
US President Joe Biden is trying to minimize the impact of his planned phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid helping him ahead of the March 23 Knesset election, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Biden administration does not want to give the impression of interfering in the upcoming election and is concerned that Netanyahu would try to spin the phone call to gain political points, sources from two Israeli political parties who have been in contact with administration officials said.
Both sources said Biden wants to convey that “there is no special relationship with Bibi.”
Asked on Monday why Biden has yet to call him nearly a month into his presidency, Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 12: “We have a great friendship of almost 40 years since I represented Israel in Washington [as deputy chief of mission] and he was in the Senate. We agree about many things, but there are disagreements on Iran and the Palestinians.”
Asked whether Biden is in fact trying to downplay that friendship, an official close to Netanyahu said: “Precisely because there is a personal relationship that dates back four decades, you have the shock absorbers in place that can assist in weathering an occasional storm.”
Biden has called America’s direct neighbors since his inauguration, as well as major leaders in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, among others, but he has not called anyone in the Middle East.
He is expected to make a brief courtesy call to Netanyahu on the same day he calls other US allies in the region, the political sources said.
The Biden administration has made sure to maintain the US-Israel relationship below the presidential level, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calling their Israeli counterparts, Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Ben-Shabbat, respectively, twice and defense cooperation continuing smoothly.
“There’s a message, but not a crisis,” one of the political sources said.
Biden has also held off appointing an ambassador to Israel until after seeing the election results because some of the people he is considering, including former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, have a poor relationship with Netanyahu. Whoever he chooses is unlikely to have as close a relationship as former ambassador David Friedman had with former president Donald Trump, whereby Friedman could often bypass the usual channels and speak directly with the president.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week said the Obama administration did not appoint ambassadors until March and that the Biden administration was not committed to the same timeline.
Some of this reflects a broader process within the Biden administration to return to the usual decision-making and interagency process, as opposed to Trump’s more informal way of doing things. Israel benefited from that informality and a warm personal relationship between Netanyahu and Trump, while the Biden administration will seek to go back to more official channels.
Meanwhile, Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan touted his work in Washington in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday.
“While you are busy with a marginal matter like a phone call, I am already working with the government and involved in many matters, including [the International Criminal Court in] The Hague’s ruling and about the embassy in Jerusalem,” he said.
“The mainstream of the Democratic Party supports Israel,” Erdan said. “Even if there are disagreements, we must have leadership that can stand up for Israel’s interests.”
Regarding the Biden administration’s stated plan to return to the 2015 Iran deal and lift sanctions if Tehran returns to compliance with its nuclear restrictions and then negotiate a stricter agreement, Erdan said doing so would mean the US “will lose all its leverage, and there will be no incentive for Iran to return to negotiations. It will be a big mistake.
“We will not be able to be part of that process,” he said.
The Biden administration has said it will reach out to allies in the region, including Israel, before engaging with Iran.