Nearly every day since US President Joe Biden’s inauguration nearly three weeks ago, Israeli media has carried headlines fretting the fact that he’s yet to make contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When pressed on the matter last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki got defensive: “He hasn’t called every foreign leader yet.”
Of course, to many Americans, Israel is just another foreign country. And the past several US presidents were in touch with their Israeli counterparts early and often. But they were also much more focused on trying to facilitate Middle East peace than the Biden Administration appears to be.
When Biden gave his first foreign policy speech last week, he conspicuously failed to mention Israel, or Iran, for that matter. The speech instead focused on China and Russia.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
While Israeli commentators say it’s a mistake for Biden to have not yet reached out to the Jewish state and America’s closest Arab allies, they also acknowledge that US attention is shifting to Asia.
Iran remains a problem, but it’s one that’s coming to a head, and the Biden White House likely prefers not to rock the boat with public statements while it’s busy with behind-the-scene diplomatic maneuvers. For the time being, Israel is satisfied with the Biden Administration’s recognition of the necessity of consulting Israel and the Gulf states before concluding any new deal with Tehran.
As far as everything else is concerned, perhaps the region is stable enough to not warrant much American attention. Former US President Donald Trump already got the ball rolling on peace between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors, and exposed the fact that a final status Israeli-Palestinian deal simply isn’t possible right now.
There’s not much else for the Americans to expend diplomatic capital on right now in the Middle East. They’ll facilitate new Israeli-Arab peace deals as they arise, and try to nudge the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but for the time being, as one Israeli expert put it, these aren’t matters that will require engagement at the level of President or Secretary of State.
Still, why hasn’t Biden called Netanyahu? According to the Israeli prime minister, the two leaders are fast friends going back decades.
One theory has it that with Israel’s next national election less than two months away, Biden doesn’t want to give Netanyahu the kind of American endorsement he craves with a personal phone call. Ahead of previous elections, Netanyahu made much of the fact that Trump had called him first of all world leaders. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Biden’s simply been too busy.