The meaning of no Bibi-Biden election year contact

Israeli prime ministers have historically felt the need to meet both parties’ candidates during an election year.

THEN-US vice president Joe Biden embraces Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden embraces Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
A funny thing happened in mid-September when Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu traveled to Washington to sign the Abraham Accords and made no public effort to reach out to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden: Absolutely nothing.
No one seemed to care. Not in Israel, and not in America.
In Israel this break with tradition – prime ministers generally meet with both major presidential candidates during an election year – barely registered, with only opposition head Yair Lapid calling it a mistake – and that only when asked about the matter by Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz at last month’s Jerusalem Post conference.
Why not? Why was Netanyahu not pummeled by political opponents for not reaching out to Biden? Why didn’t Yediot Ahronot jump on this and plaster it all over its front page?
Because considering the closeness of Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Donald Trump, there was no real expectation that he would do anything to antagonize the president. And Netanyahu meeting with Biden – or even publicly reaching out to him with a phone call – during a trip to Washington to sign the peace accords brokered by the Trump administration would have surely done just that.
But nobody seemed to care in America, either. What is even more telling is that no one seemed to care in the Biden campaign. Leaks, for instance, did not emerge from close advisors to the former vice president bashing Netanyahu for “brazenly taking sides,” or for “disrespecting” a man who may be president.
During the 2016 election, less than two months before the US voted, both Trump and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s teams were eager to set up a meeting with Netanyahu. Those meetings were held in New York on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meeting.
This time, however, there was no public indication by the Biden team before Netanyahu flew to Washington that they were interested in a meeting or public phone call during the prime minister’s two-night stay, just as the Biden camp did not protest afterward that no such meeting or phone call had taken place.
Why not? Because while in the past, meetings with the Israeli prime minister were a way for presidential candidates to show their unwavering support for the Jewish state, it is in no way a given that a Biden photo-op with Netanyahu – a polarizing figure for many Americans and American Jews because of his close association with Trump – would be something that would help Biden with voters.
Such a photo would certainly do nothing to energize the Progressive wing of his party, and could even alienate those American voters– Jews among them– who detest Trump and see Netanyahu as his Israeli twin.
The lack of pique by the Biden camp, as well as the campaign’s doing little to publicly push for a meeting or a phone call, says much about the degree to which Israel under Netanyahu has turned into a partisan issue.
Israeli prime ministers have historically felt the need to meet both parties’ candidates during an election year. The last time an Israeli prime minister did not meet with both US presidential candidates was in 2004 when Ariel Sharon met with George W. Bush, but during that same visit to the US snubbed John Kerry, the Democratic candidate.
Kerry’s aides reportedly tried to arrange a meeting with Sharon, but were rebuffed by Sharon’s aides who said there was no time, the same reason given by Netanyahu’s staff when asked why he did not meet Biden in September.
Though open overtures from Jerusalem to the Biden campaign would undoubtedly raise the ire of Trump, Israel would be asleep at the wheel if it had not already begun cultivating ties with the Biden foreign policy team.
And there are many ways to do so. First of all, Netanyahu and Biden have a relationship that goes back decades, with Biden famously having said in 2012 that he “loves” Netanyahu, although he doesn’t agree with a “damn thing” he says.
Israeli officials also have good connections with a number of people considered a part of Biden’s foreign policy advisory team, such as Tom Donilon, a national security advisor under Barack Obama, and former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
That Netanyahu has neither met nor had a phone call with Biden that was made public – and that this does not seem to matter much to the Biden campaign – is indicative of a US partisan divide on Netanyahu.
It does not, however, mean Jerusalem is not in contact with the Biden team. Considering the degree to which the current polls are smiling on the Democratic challenger, for Israel not to have already developed a quiet working relationship with key members of the Biden foreign policy team would be nothing less than diplomatic malpractice.