There were any number of ways it could have gone.
In 2001, George W. Bush called Ehud Barak seven days after the inauguration for what was described as an “introductory conversation” that lasted a mere seven minutes. Bush knew that Barak was up for reelection in a matter of weeks and was predicted to lose. Nevertheless, the call was made.
In 2009, Barack Obama called Ehud Olmert the day after the inauguration, a sign of how important the Middle East was to his foreign policy agenda.
In 2017, Donald Trump called Benjamin Netanyahu two days after the inauguration, a sign of how important the relationship with Israel was and would become for his administration.
Joe Biden surpassed them all. He took his time and waited almost a month – until Wednesday night – to place his first phone call to Jerusalem.
To some supporters of the Israeli-American relationship, this was disturbing. Israel is one of America’s closest allies in the world, definitely the closest in the Middle East. Based on tradition and the moves of the last three presidents, Biden’s phone call should have taken place within a matter of days.
But it didn’t, which is why there was little doubt that something else was behind the delay, and why the lack of said phone call not only made headlines around the world, but also became an ongoing near daily question for Jen Psaki in the White House Briefing Room.
On the surface, the phone call was not really that important.
As is already known, every other level of government has been working with its US counterpart, despite there being no direct contact between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has spoken a number of times with Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Defense Minister Benny Gantz has had conversations with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat has talked frequently with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, was in Israel just a few weeks ago for high-level talks.
Moreover, Israel’s newly installed ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan, just this past week downplayed the importance of the call, noting that while the media was focused on the Israeli-US switchboards, he was already in touch daily with senior members of the Biden administration.
The White House claimed that the delay was not a substantive delay but rather illustrated a new systematic approach to foreign affairs. Biden, US officials said, made calls based on regions, and that when the time came to reach out to the Middle East, Netanyahu would be – as he was on Wednesday night – first on the line.
But as the days dragged on and the call didn’t come, it was clear that a message was being sent, and that it was personal. This wasn’t about a change in policy, like when the White House intentionally sought to create daylight with Israel during the Obama era, but rather something simpler: the Biden administration wanted to show that it won’t play according to Netanyahu’s beat.
Israeli officials in contact with members of the Biden administration spoke of what diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov wrote in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post: Biden waited to make the call not because he was distancing himself from Israel, but rather because he wanted to distance himself from Netanyahu.
WHICH IS why as upsetting as the delay of the phone call might have been, it should not be viewed as a slight of Israel. That was not the point. Rather, it was being done to achieve three objectives.
First, after four years in which Donald Trump seemingly gave Netanyahu whatever he wanted, Biden and his aides wanted to put the Israeli politician back in his right place. He does not control Washington anymore.
The second objective was to show that the US-Israel relationship is not dependent on a single individual like Netanyahu. Israel is heading to an election in 33 days and no matter who wins, the White House was almost saying, we will learn to work with him. Making Netanyahu – who took his time congratulating Biden after the November election – wait was added benefit.
Finally, the administration did not want to give Netanyahu a pre-election gift of a quick phone call, something that would have immediately been used by Netanyahu for political gain.
Nevertheless, that was done anyhow late on Wednesday night, when Netanyahu released a photo of him sitting in his home office grinning ear to ear as he spoke with Biden. Was there a photo released from the White House? Of course not. It was just a phone call. Not for Netanyahu though. Heading toward an election, he needed to show the Israeli public that everything is seemingly okay on the US front. He needed to put on a show.
What can’t be forgotten is Netanyahu’s role in bringing Israel to this point. While he will claim that his fight with Obama and against the 2015 Iran deal was of existential importance, the fact is, he failed. The Iran deal passed through Congress despite Netanyahu’s controversial speech, but it created a wound in Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party that has yet to heal six years later.
Biden was Obama’s vice president, and many of the advisers who surround the new president now were the same advisers who surrounded Obama and worked on the deal, known as the JCPOA. Netanyahu was repeatedly warned at the time that this would happen, and that his chances at stopping the deal with a speech – no matter how passionate and animated – were anyway almost non-existent.
A look at where Iran is today – with increased stockpiles of uranium and centrifuges – raises questions whether the speech or pushing Trump to quit the JCPOA was even worth it.
He was also warned in 2017 when Trump took office that cozying up to him would come at a price. When Netanyahu made comments that Trump was “the greatest friend” Israel ever had in the White House, he was warned that it was a mistake, that doing so would insult the previous 12 men who had sat in the Oval Office during the 72 years of Israel’s existence. By saying what he said, Netanyahu erased Truman, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama. None of them, Netanyahu implied, was as good as Trump.
He was warned that his flattery would return to hurt him, that the pendulum would eventually swing back, and that a Democratic president would again take up residence in the White House and might even enjoy a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But Netanyahu ignored those warnings, and made no secret of his desire to see Trump reelected.
Netanyahu, in his defense, dismisses such criticism. As proof, he mentions the meetings he has with almost every Democratic member of Congress who visits Israel. This might be true, but meetings in Jerusalem don’t make up for the actions he took in Washington, like the 2015 speech in Congress or the lecture he gave Obama in the Oval Office in 2011 that angered the president and his staff.
BUT POLITICS are not the only place where mistakes were made. For the last five years, Netanyahu has not only ignored the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in the US, he has repeatedly slapped them in the face.
In June 2017, he shamefully overturned a previous decision by his government to establish a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel due to pressure from his haredi coalition partners; he has also done nothing to change the conversion policy in Israel, despite his promises; and he continues to outsource all matters of religion and state to Yaakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri.
The last few years have seen a continued breakdown in ties between the State of Israel and progressive Jewish movements in the US, where the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial conference fails to even attract top members of the government anymore.
Netanyahu knows this, and consciously facilitated this situation. He knew that progressive American Jews who overwhelmingly vote for the Democrats did not approve of his alliance with Trump, and he knew that they were against his policies in Israel.
What Israelis have to do is make sure they don’t pay the price, which means ensuring that the current prime minister – assuming he remains in office after the upcoming election – does not end up fighting with Biden the way he fought with Obama. He needs to continue smiling when talking to the president.
While Biden mentioned the Palestinians in his talk with Netanyahu on Wednesday, no one has any expectation right now of a breakthrough in the years-long impasse. Instead, if something is going to test the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington, it will be what Biden decides to do with Iran.
For now, Israel has an opportunity to influence the path Biden decides to take. To do that successfully, Netanyahu will have to approach the matter clean of any other interests, whether political or personal. Based on the way he engaged with the last two presidents, the chances of that happening are not particularly high.