U.S. President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett only two hours after he was sworn in on Sunday, a timeframe orders of magnitude shorter than the near month-long wait between Biden’s own swearing in and his first call to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February.
The delayed call was seen by many in Israel as a snub, although many believe that it instead reflected the low priority that the Biden administration initially placed on Israel as it grappled with the rollout of its coronavirus vaccination effort and attempts to rebuild ties with European allies estranged by the Trump administration.
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However, the White House was soon forced to grapple with Israel and the Palestinians after fighting broke out last month, prompting a visit by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who was sent from Washington to try and shore up a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. By the time Blinken arrived, it was beginning to appear that Netanyahu’s record-breaking term as prime minister was in danger of ending and America’s chief diplomat quickly arranged a meeting with now-alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Biden was the first world leader to react to Bennett's swearing-in, which ended Netanyahu's 12 consecutive years as prime minister.
A readout of the call from Bennett's office said he and Biden had "stressed the importance of the alliance between Israel and the United States, as well as their commitment to strengthening ties ... and maintaining Israel's security” while the White House, in its own readout, said Biden "highlighted his decades of steadfast support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
"The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran. The President also conveyed that his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians,” the statement added.
Bennett’s statement about the call left out the White House’s reference to cooperation on the Palestinian issue.
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Netanyahu has long been criticized in both Jerusalem and Washington for allegedly politicizing U.S.-Israel relations, building ties with Republicans at the expense of the broad bipartisan support which many believe is necessary for Israel's security.
“It took Joe Biden (the) better part of (a) month to reach out to Netanyahu after he became President,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who spent years involved in Israeli-Arab peace negotiations.
“Within an hour or so of Bennett's new government's being sworn in, Biden issues (a) congratulatory statement. Biden knows he caught (a) break with Netanyahu's departure.”
Speaking with Haaretz earlier this month, pollster Mark Mellman, who has been advising Lapid for years and is also the founder of the organization Democratic Majority for Israel, said he believed that “a government without Netanyahu will start out in a vastly better place with Democrats” in Washington.
He explained that “Right or wrong, fair or unfair, Netanyahu has been strongly identified with the Republican Party — and in our hyper-polarized society, Israel has paid a high price for that on the Democratic side.” He added that “Lapid has spent considerable time with President Biden (before he became president) and they have an excellent relationship on which to build.”
For his part, Lapid announced on Monday that Jerusalem must change the way it deals with U.S. Democrats, who he said had been abandoned by Netanyahu.
"The Republicans are important to us, but not just them. We find ourselves, as you well know, facing a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic Congress," Lapid told Israeli diplomats. "And these Democrats are angry."
Lapid also said that he spoke to Blinken on Sunday night: "Both of us believe that we need to build our relationship with the (U.S.) government based on mutual respect and on better dialogue."
In a tweet on Sunday evening, Rep. Ted Deutch, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism, said that he welcomed the new government and “looked forward to the opportunity to engage w/ new Israeli gov’t officials on strengthening this important bilateral relationship.”
During his final speech before the Knesset vote of confidence in his government on Sunday evening, Bennett thanked Biden for “standing alongside Israel during the last operation in Gaza” and for “his longstanding commitment to the security of Israel.”
“We greatly appreciate the support of the United States, our greatest friend,” Bennett continued. “My government will make an effort to deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties – bipartisan. If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust, and mutual respect.”
Netanyahu, in his own speech before the Knesset, attacked the new government as an existential threat to the state of Israel, asserting that its alleged inability to stand up to American pressure would be disastrous for the Jewish people.
Netanyahu claimed that Biden, his “friend of 40 years,” asked him to keep their disagreements about Washington’s attempt to rejoin its nuclear agreement with Iran out of the public eye but that he had rejected his entreaties.
“In 1944, at the height of the Holocaust, Roosevelt refused to bomb the trains and gas (chambers), which could have saved many of our people. Today we have a voice, we have a country, and we have a defensive force,” he said, in an implicit rebuke of Biden.
“Bennett hasn’t got the international standing, the integrity, the capability, the knowledge, and he hasn’t got the government to oppose the nuclear agreement. That is the biggest problem. An Israeli PM needs to be able to say no to the leader of the world’s superpower,” Netanyahu declared, asserting that he did not believe Bennett would be willing to take unilateral action against Iran if necessary.
It was not the first time that the outgoing prime minister used rhetoric appearing to describe Bennett and the Biden administration as existential threats.
“What will it do for Israel's deterrence? How will we look in the eyes of our enemies,” Netanyahu asked in a speech two weeks ago about the possibility of an anti-Netanyahu coalition being formed. “What will they do in Iran and in Gaza? What will they say in the halls of government in Washington?”
Ben Samuels and Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.