Analysis |

Biden Didn't Call Netanyahu After His Inauguration. Does It Matter?

Some Israelis went into crisis mode because Biden has yet to reach out to Netanyahu. But relationships between U.S. and Israeli leaders are measured by matters of policy, not when they first spoke

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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FILE – Netanyahu at the Knesset.
FILE – Netanyahu at the Knesset. Credit: Emil Salman
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

“No April rain

No flowers bloom

No wedding Saturday within the month of June

But what it is, is something true

Made up of these three words that I must say to you

I just called to say I love you

I just called to say how much I care

I just called to say I love you

And I mean it from the bottom of my heart”

This is the nonofficial and nonexistent White House transcript of the phone call that never happened between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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If such a call does end up happening, this is what Biden should say. In exactly those words, preferably with Stevie Wonder’s original music.

Because the phone call was never made, many devastated Israelis – particularly in the media – all guided by their compulsive need to be loved by the U.S. president, are in full panic mode. “Is this a crisis? What’s the problem with Biden? Is the United States still an ally? What will happen with the Iran nuclear deal now Biden hasn’t spoken to Netanyahu,” they ask anxiously.

Instead of the predictable and bland “The prime minister spoke with U.S. President Biden today; the two, who have been close friends for 30 years, had a very cordial conversation about the Iranian threats and regional developments,” Israelis are saturated by media and social media pundits declaring this to be some kind of a crisis.

One aspect of judging the relative quality of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been to look at couples’ relationships: analyzing the personal U.S. president-Israeli PM relationship at a given time. Some have been hostile to very cool (Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion); some got warmer with the evolution of the relationship (Lyndon B. Johnson and Levi Eshkol); some were cordial and correct (Richard Nixon and Golda Meir); some were fundamentally bad and lacking trust or sympathy (Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin); some were cool (George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir); some have been the most intimate and trustworthy (Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert); some have been standoffish (Clinton and Netanyahu); some were destructively atrocious (Barack Obama and Netanyahu).

But this is just one, very partial and superficial aspect. The relationship has become so entrenched, institutionalized and broad that Israel Defense Forces-U.S. military, Mossad-CIA, Defense Ministry-Pentagon and Foreign Ministry-State Department relations are far more important than the level of sympathy or antipathy the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister harbor for each other.

Yet the manufactured “crisis” lingers. People on both sides of the Ocean involved in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, who are hypersensitive to nano-nuances, paid attention. Some recommended that we just count the same number of days that it took Netanyahu to congratulate Biden on his victory and call him “president-elect.” When we reach that exact number of days, that’s when Biden will call Netanyahu, or accept his call. Provided, of course, that Israeli officials cease and desist from threatening Biden on Iran.

Others, less sympathetic to Mr. Netanyahu, suggested that surely Biden tried to call several times but the line was constantly busy because, as Netanyahu himself and his cronies gleefully and shamelessly attest, “He gets calls from so many world leaders asking him for advice on how to manage the coronavirus pandemic.”

LOOK WHO'S TALKING: Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and French President Emmanuel Macron in calls with President Joe Biden. Credit: PM's Office, Reuters / South Korea Presidential Blue House via AP / Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP

Granted, a phone conversation between a new American president and an Israeli prime minister usually takes place very early after inauguration. Israel is in the list of 10 first calls a president makes, after Canada, Mexico, Britain and France – certainly since Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993.

In fact, in January 2009, Obama called then-Prime Minister Olmert knowing full well that Israeli elections, in which Olmert was not running for reelection, were scheduled for February 10.

So, 14 days into his fledgling presidency and Joe Biden hasn’t called Netanyahu. Does this have some symbolic significance? Yes. Is it a thinly disguised message of discontent? Perhaps. Does it have any substantive importance? Absolutely not.

Surely a conversation between Biden and Netanyahu will be presented by a grandstanding Netanyahu as historic, clear proof of his unique and singular skill to talk to American presidents. It’s on a par with Nixon’s call to the moon in 1969, when he spoke with NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Naturally, some will compare it to the first call in history, when Alexander Bell called his assistant Thomas Watson in 1876 and said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

In the end, a call is just a call, and it will inevitably take place in a matter of days. What will define the relationship and the possible points of friction is policy substance and the style of dialogue, not when Biden first called Netanyahu.

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