Netanyahu-Biden relationship is the one to watch in 2023

There is no reason to ask whether Biden and Netanyahu will develop good personal chemistry – the two have been calling each other by their first names for over 40 years.

 US VICE-PRESIDENT Joe Biden with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in 2016.  (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/POOL/REUTERS)
US VICE-PRESIDENT Joe Biden with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in 2016.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/POOL/REUTERS)

Over the coming months, all those who, like me, compulsively follow US-Israel ties will be focusing on the interaction between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We will analyze the wording of Biden’s statement of congratulations to Netanyahu, the tone and duration of the two leaders’ phone call, and the speed with which Netanyahu’s Oval Office meeting with Biden is scheduled.

Crucially, there is no reason to ask whether America’s 46th president and Israel’s new-old prime minister will develop good personal chemistry – the two have been calling each other by their first names for some 40 years. 

Biden and Netanyahu first met in Washington in 1982. Then, when Netanyahu took up the post of deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy, Biden already had been twice elected to the Senate.

The two ambitious young men, both under age 40, shared a passion for politics and a keen interest in international affairs. Having grown up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Israel’s up-and-coming diplomat flourished in the American capital, quickly building a rapport with Delaware’s junior senator.

For his part, Biden was raised in a household where Israel’s cause was enthusiastically championed. Biden recalled his father, Joe Biden Sr., talking about the Holocaust and saying that “the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure Jewish state.”

 THEN-US vice president Joe Biden prepares to sign the guest book before his meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in 2010 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) THEN-US vice president Joe Biden prepares to sign the guest book before his meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in 2010 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Perhaps the common experience of family tragedy also helped them bond. Netanyahu’s older brother Yoni met his death commanding the Israeli raid at Entebbe in 1976. Four years earlier, Biden had lost his wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter Naomi in a car accident.   

Since their first meeting in Washington in 1982, they stayed in touch as both climbed the greasy pole of politics. In 1984, Netanyahu left Washington, DC for New York to serve as Israel’s UN ambassador. Shortly after returning to Israel, he was elected to the Knesset in 1988, rapidly becoming a key player in Israeli politics. 

Biden remained in Washington, his decades in the Senate seeing him advance to chair the prestigious Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees. In 2008, senator Barack Obama picked Biden as his running mate for the presidential election. 

Biden and Netanyahu have also both had their fair share of political defeats. Biden twice unsuccessfully ran for president, in 1988 and in 2008. 

Netanyahu was an Israeli political rock star, elected premier for the first time in 1996. But just three years later, after losing an election and not yet 50 years old, he was already an unemployed former prime minister. 

Netanyahu returned to the premiership for a second time in 2009, staying in office for consecutive terms until 2021 – during which he exceeded David Ben-Gurion’s record as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

When Netanyahu emerged victorious from the Knesset elections of November 1, he made political history once again. While other Israeli prime ministers have staged successful comebacks, Netanyahu is the only one to lose the office twice and be reelected to the top spot.

WHEN BIDEN and Netanyahu have their first White House meeting in 2023, both will do so as political winners: Netanyahu after forming his sixth government; Biden coming out of the 2022 midterm elections an unexpected victor. 

It is not impossible that the two newly empowered leaders will work together in a less confrontational manner than that which existed between Netanyahu and Biden’s Democratic predecessor, Obama.

First, because Biden is not Obama. Unlike the 44th president, the current occupant of the White House proudly and publicly self-identifies as a gentile Zionist. Michael Oren, Israel’s Washington ambassador in Obama’s first term, has written that even during times of high tension, when no one else in the administration would agree to a meeting, the doors of the vice president’s office always remained open. 

Second, because the friction that plagued US-Israel ties during the Obama years stemmed from serious policy disagreements over Iran and the Palestinians, and a repeat of those acrimonious debates is not a foregone conclusion.  

Iran Deal won't be an obstacle

After the Biden administration abandoned its original calls for a “stronger and longer” nuclear agreement with Iran, there were fears in Jerusalem that Washington was rushing toward a return to the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But such concerns have somewhat subsided, the initial plans to reengage with Iran immediately following the November midterms never materializing.

The Iranian regime’s ongoing brutal suppression of the freedom protests that erupted following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police, and the Iranian-made attack drones that have been used in their hundreds by Russia against Ukraine, have taken their toll in Washington. 

Just last week, the White House announced that it does not see “a deal coming together anytime soon while Iran continues to kill its own citizens and sell UAVs to Russia.” Apparently, the prospects of a Washington-Tehran rapprochement have been dramatically reduced – at least for now.  

On the Palestinian track, a US-Israel clash is not unavoidable either. Unlike the Obama period, when the onus on moving forward was largely placed on Israel, today Washington increasingly appreciates that the Palestinians are a flawed peace partner. 

The Biden administration accepted the decision of the Bennett-Lapid government to avoid substantive political negotiations with the Palestinians. From Washington’s perspective, Netanyahu’s circumspect approach could be viewed as just more of the same.

Furthermore, instead of trying to negotiate a final status peace agreement, the Bennett-Lapid government, with Washington’s blessing, focused on practical steps benefiting Palestinians. These include increasing the number of Palestinian workers in Israel, providing financial support for the Palestinian treasury, and approving Palestinian construction in Area C. Netanyahu has been a long-time advocate of analogous tangible measures. 

Of course, policy differences will inevitably exist, and the sensitive issue of settlement growth will almost certainly be a bone of contention. But not every disagreement necessitates a crisis in Washington-Jerusalem ties. 

In a 2014 speech before a Jewish audience, Biden spoke of his decades-long relationship with Netanyahu, recalling he had once told the Israeli prime minister: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”

Considering the rightist members of the incoming Israeli coalition who advocate policies that will surely irritate Washington, and the progressive congressional Democrats who pedestalize the Palestinian cause, the 40-year Biden-Netanyahu friendship could turn out to be a vital shock absorber for whenever bumps on the road arise in the US-Israel partnership – as they undoubtedly will. 

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.