Most of those debating when President Joe Biden is going to finally pick up the phone and call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are either overestimating or underestimating the significance of this kerfuffle. The point isn’t when the two leaders will chat or how insulted Netanyahu should be by the obvious snub. The real issue is what it portends for the relationship between the two nations over the next four years. It also relates to the temptation to which every past U.S. administration has succumbed: trying to intervene in Israeli politics.
On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki promised that the much-talked-about phone call would happen “soon.” As to when “soon” was, she told reporters to “stay tuned” and that the chat with the prime minister would be the first with any Middle East leader. Only last week, she wouldn’t say whether Israel was an ally when asked directly about it, but now describes the ties between the two countries by saying, “Israel is, of course, an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship.”
That’s good news for those who feared that the absence of direct communication between the two leaders was a sign that the alliance was on the rocks. Or is it?
While not on the same scale as the message that former President Barack Obama sent Netanyahu when he chose to visit surrounding Arab countries but not Israel in 2009, making the prime minister wait his turn to speak with the new president was not an accident. After the uber-close relationship between Netanyahu and Trump, the White House wanted to make it clear to the Israeli leader that he understood that things are different now.
It’s true that the president is prioritizing domestic issues. It’s also true that it’s generally a good thing when Israel is not at the top of any president’s agenda. That often means that the Jewish state is under attack in one sense or another or because the United States is once again foolishly trying to “save Israel from itself.” Israel is always better off when it is left alone to deal with its problems in its own way without foreign interference.
But sooner or later, the White House will be “circling back” (to use Psaki’s ubiquitous catchphrase) to Israel, and that is bound to mean trouble.
That’s not just because the top Middle Eastern priority for the administration is trying to cajole Iran to make some sort of gesture that will allow Biden to bring the United States back into the dangerous 2015 nuclear deal that Trump rejected. The president’s foreign-policy team is filled with former Obama staffers and others who are from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party who are more hostile to Israel and tilt towards the Palestinians. Even the allegedly pro-Israel moderates at Biden’s side, like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, retain a strong animus against Netanyahu.
Obama and his inner circle despised the prime minister and resented his open opposition to their disastrous Iran deal, as well as their push for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Though Netanyahu likes to talk of his decades-long relationship with Biden, no one should mistake their connection for a genuine rapport. Biden has a politician’s proclivity for declaring himself friends with various people while doing all he could to defeat them. His idea of friendship for Israel has been warm in terms of rhetoric, though was always accompanied by a belief that he knew more about what was good for the Jewish state than the Jews.
All of which leads back to the one element of the phone call controversy that has been largely ignored. Netanyahu is once again seeking re-election next month in the fourth Israeli election in two years, which means that the one thing that Biden doesn’t want to do is anything that might conceivably help the prime minister win on March 23 and then manage to assemble a Knesset majority.
Like most Israelis, Biden has no idea what a post-Netanyahu government would look like or even if it’s a real possibility. Right now, polls show that Netanyahu may have a shot at a majority led by his Likud Party; however, a stalemate in which no one can form a government, much like the results of the last three elections, is equally possible.
That presents Biden with a temptation that may prove hard to resist. As opposed to Trump doing his best to boost Netanyahu with friendly gestures (recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan before the March 2019 vote and floating the idea of a mutual defense treaty before the September 2019 election), there’s little doubt that this administration would dearly love to kneecap the prime minister. But the problem they face is that anything that smacks of heavy-handed U.S. intervention will backfire and wind up helping him far more than Trump’s gestures did.
That was the bitter lesson Obama learned—or at least should have learned—after various attempts to undermine Netanyahu only strengthened the latter’s grip on power.
The Obama administration’s snit over the so-called insult dealt Biden by the announcement of building houses in Jerusalem while he was in the country in 2010 provided a huge boost to Netanyahu since that allowed him to pose as the defender of an Israeli consensus on the capital. The same thing happened after Obama’s attempt to make the 1967 armistice lines the starting point for future negotiations in 2011, which Netanyahu answered with an Oval Office lecture to the president that some of the president’s loyalists are still seething about. Nor did Netanyahu’s brazen opposition to the Iran deal hurt him at home even if it did anger Democrats.
Biden has been far more open about his desire to downgrade relations with Saudi Arabia. That’s bad news for Israel since the Saudis were a key component of Trump’s push for the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between a number of Arab states and Israel. American sniping at the Saudis helps Iran and should be seen as part of a U.S. strategy intended to woo Tehran. Direct American attacks on Netanyahu’s policies are likely to be put on hold until after the Israeli election or maybe until after the Palestinians hold a possible vote this spring, assuming that ever happens.
If Biden really does call Netanyahu soon, it will be because the White House has begun to think that it is overplaying its hand with the ongoing brushoff in a way that will help the prime minister, as opposed to putting him in his place. No matter when the phone rings, there’s no escaping the fact that any conceivable Israeli government that emerges from next month’s election is going to have a rough time with an administration determined to go back to appeasing Iran, as well as undercutting the Jewish state’s alliance with friendly Gulf states. It is on the Biden administration’s gestures towards Tehran—rather than its willingness to take shots at Netanyahu—that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship depends.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.