Israel not the reason Biden hasn't called Netanyahu. What is? - analysis

If it were about Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken would not have already spoken twice to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

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.
It’s the election, stupid.
All those wondering why US President Joe Biden has still not called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than three weeks after being sworn into office would do well to take a look at the Facebook page of Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.
There, as the page’s banner photo, is a picture of a smiling Lapid in a light, chummy moment with Biden in what appears to be Biden’s office. The picture is somewhat fuzzy, and it is not clear when it was taken or what position Biden occupied at the time. But the message is clear: Lapid knows Biden, and they get along just swimmingly.
Why hasn’t Biden called Netanyahu yet? Likely because he does not want to give Netanyahu anything similar to put on his Facebook page, or to use in the upcoming campaign.
In the 15 days prior to the April 2019 election, the first in this dizzying dance of one election after another, Netanyahu pulled off an astounding trifecta: meetings with US President Donald Trump in Washington, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in Jerusalem, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. And the message Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin all sent with those meetings was clear: “We like Netanyahu, we want Netanyahu.”
That is a message Netanyahu campaigned on in that election, as well as in the two that quickly followed. As the prime minister’s campaign slogan put it for the September 2019 election: “Netanyahu, in a different league.”
This time Biden isn’t playing ball. The new US president will not do anything now that could be interpreted as interfering in the election, or that could be used by Netanyahu to boost his campaign.
The Biden-Netanyahu non-call, which has spawned much media speculation and been the subject of queries at a White House news conference and in interviews with top administration officials, is not – as some would argue – about Israel.
It is not a sign that the relationship between Israel and the US is no longer “special.” It is not a sign of Washington’s anger at Israel, or trying to take it down a notch, or recalibrating the relationship.
If it were about Israel, then Secretary of State Antony Blinken would not have already talked to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi not once, but twice; National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s third call in office would not have been to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat; and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would not have already spoken with Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
No, all those calls show that Biden’s failure to phone yet is not about Israel. It’s about Netanyahu and the upcoming election, with Biden not wanting to do anything that might ease the prime minister’s path to victory.
And this should not really have taken anybody by surprise.
Netanyahu did manage to gingerly sidestep a trap former president Donald Trump set for him in a video call just days before the US election in November, when Trump asked whether “Sleepy Joe” – a reference to Biden – could have ever brokered the normalization of ties between Israel and Sudan. (Netanyahu’s diplomatic response: “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is, we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”)
But the prime minister did praise Trump on numerous occasions – including in the months leading up to the American balloting – as the best US president for Israel in history.
Israeli and US politicians have a practiced record of making clear whom they prefer in the other country’s elections: ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin clearly preferred Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972; Bill Clinton made no bones he wanted Shimon Peres over Netanyahu in 1996; Netanyahu did little to hide his longing for Mitt Romney in 2012; and Barack Obama’s distaste for Netanyahu was widely known before the election here in 2015. This type of interference has long been a feature of US-Israel relations, and the only thing that has changed is how blatant that intervention becomes.
Biden’s people might argue that by not calling Netanyahu now, the new president is merely trying to stay out of Israel’s campaign. But the lack of a call has itself become a form of intervention, though no worse than Netanyahu’s favorable comments about Trump during the US campaign.
Additional evidence that the current non-call is not about Israel but, rather, about Netanyahu and the campaign is that Biden spoke with Netanyahu on November 20, just two weeks after he beat Trump.
Biden had no problem talking to Netanyahu then because that was a month before the Israeli government fell and a new election was called. There was no fear of the call being used in the prime minister’s election campaign, because at that time there was no election campaign. But that is not the case now, something which goes a long way toward explaining why such a call has not yet taken place.
If a call does come before the March 23 election – and it might, because the president may want to talk to some Mideast leaders over the next six weeks, and will have a tough time doing so without also talking to Netanyahu – it will likely be perfunctory, in order to prevent the Netanyahu camp from making political hay out of it.
Biden, it seems, can live with a picture of himself in the banner photo on Lapid’s Facebook page. Chances are that seeing himself somehow used in Netanyahu’s campaign would thrill him much less.