Biden doesn't want to sit through a lecture by Netanyahu - opinion

Biden has a full load of issues, problems and leftover Trump detritus to deal with.

US President Joe Biden visits the State Department, Washington (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
US President Joe Biden visits the State Department, Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
There are at least 613 theories about why President Joe Biden hasn’t (so far) gotten around to phoning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They range from the sinister to the benign.
Some close allies of Netanyahu are calling it a “full-blown diplomatic snub,” “a lack of respect,” and a sign of fundamental change in the bilateral relationship. Biden’s advisers have dismissed it as “utterly irrelevant” and suggested a call could be coming soon.
My own theory is that Biden has a full load of issues, problems and leftover Trump detritus to deal with, and he just doesn’t want to sit through another of Netanyahu’s condescending sanctimonious lectures on how to do his job.
He remembers vividly Bibi’s rude lecture on live television from the Oval Office, smugly schooling Barack Obama on the history and realities of the Middle East.
Bibi already took a pot shot at Biden even before his inauguration, with a public admonition to drop his campaign pledge to return to the Iran nuclear agreement. He did it again when it looked like the new administration might reverse Trump’s endorsement of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. You know, that strategic plateau where Bibi honored his pal Donald by naming a new settlement for him.
As of this writing, Biden has spoken to the leaders of China, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Russia, but no one in the Middle East. White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki says Biden “is looking forward to speaking” with Netanyahu but no time has been set. Psaki surely knows about Biden’s autograph on a photo for Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.”
Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration, said it should surprise no one that “after Bibi spent years relentlessly undermining the Obama-Biden administration, he’s not at the top of the call list.”
Biden has known Netanyahu since the Israeli premier was the number two at the Israeli Embassy in Washington 40 years ago. As the autograph indicated, they have had many differences, particularly over settlements and peace policies.
I got to know both men well during the ‘80s as the chief lobbyist for AIPAC. I can attest that Biden is as strong and reliable a friend of Israel as anyone in the Senate. In fact, his views on Israel are probably more in sync with those of the American Jewish community than are Netanyahu’s.
In nearly 15 years off and on as prime minister, Netanyahu has moved Israel farther to the Right, making alliances with religious and nationalist extremists and pursuing policies aimed at killing any remaining hope for a two-state solution. And he has plunged into American partisan politics, becoming cheerleader for former president Trump and collaborating with the American Right’s virulent attacks against his predecessor, Barack Obama.
These factors have only deepened the chasm between American Jews and the Jewish state, and they have strained an alliance based on shared strategic interests and a commitment to democracy.
ON ONE LEVEL, US-Israel relations continue steady, strong and solid. Even when Netanyahu clashed with Obama, that administration produced the largest aid package in history and new levels of intelligence and technological cooperation.
Biden may not have phoned Netanyahu yet, but their governments are already working closely at the ministerial level. The new secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor and intelligence leaders have already had numerous conversations and some personal meetings with their Israeli counterparts.
If there is a problem in the relationship, it is trust. Netanyahu has a Trumpian reputation that dates back to the Clinton administration. In past years, Israeli leaders have been among the first to call and congratulate a newly elected president, but this time Netanyahu, who had phoned Trump two days after his 2016 election, waited 10 days to call Biden and for weeks avoided referring to him as president-elect, apparently out of fear of offending the loser who was falsely claiming he’d won the election.
It is absurd that Netanyahu’s followers complain that Biden wasn’t quick enough to phone his fickle friend in Jerusalem.
Bibi is in the midst of his fourth election in barely two years, and he had Trump’s endorsement every time; he hung huge banners on the sides of buildings touting the American president’s backing. Biden doesn’t want to be put in that position by Netanyahu, who also is on trial for corruption. He knows Netanyahu, a PR master like Trump, could use their phone conversation as an election endorsement or as a signal to Israeli voters to elect a PM who can get along with the new American leader.
Biden’s top foreign-policy priorities are cleaning up damage done by his disgraced predecessor, starting with repairing relations with America’s NATO and Asian allies, dealing with Russia – which Trump coddled – and China.
The Middle East is not a top priority for the new administration. The prospects of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are remote, with neither side showing much interest. The US Embassy will remain in Jerusalem, but Biden wants to move early to restore relations and aid for the Palestinians that were largely cut off by Trump.
Biden intends to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, which was Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement that Trump abrogated, and that could be a major source of friction between Washington and Jerusalem, especially for Bibi, who sometimes finds it difficult to disagree without being disagreeable.
Netanyahu is understandably preoccupied with keeping his day job and staying out of prison, but when he gets around to speaking to his old friend the new American president, he should remember the old autograph on the picture and the outcome of the last election. And he should keep in mind the fact that the American Jewish community, beset by a still-raging pandemic, a shaky economy and an antisemitic surge fueled by a president Bibi loved but American Jews overwhelmingly rejected, may not be as willing to run political interference for his government.