Lapid: 'Cowardly, shameful' silence hurts Israel's interests

As worldwide congratulations rain down on Biden, Israel’s top leaders remain mum

Netanyahu, Rivlin, Gantz and Ashkenazi all missing from long list of world leaders who comment on outcome of US presidential elections; PM said ‘waiting for official results’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Several hours after the major American networks projected that Joe Biden had beaten US President Donald Trump and would replace him in the White House, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained mum on the election’s outcome.

While leaders across the globe — including from the European Union, India, Egypt, Qatar and many other states — swiftly congratulated the president-elect on his victory, Netanyahu was expected not to issue a statement on the election on Saturday night. The Times of Israel asked three of his spokespeople if he was planning to comment on the election but was not given an answer.

President Reuven Rivlin, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also had not publicly commented on the US election by the time of this writing.

The Walla news site on Saturday evening quoted unnamed sources close to Netanyahu saying that he was “waiting for the official results.”

At the same time, Walla and Kan news reported that the prime minister’s office instructed ministers of his Likud party to convey two messages in press interviews: that Israel can work well with Biden, just as it worked with Trump; and that they hope Biden will continue to push Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel and to stand up to Iran, and won’t reverse the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

According to Kan, the formulation was meant to allow Likud to compliment Trump — with whom Netanyahu has forged close ties — while also congratulating Biden on his victory without alienating either side.

However, many Israeli politicians, including at least one member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Nir Barkat, and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White), did quickly congratulate Biden on his election. Barkat, a former Jerusalem mayor, said he believed that under Biden’s leadership “the courageous and positive relationship between the two countries will continue. Barkat also thanked Trump for “his incredible contribution to the State of Israel… You will be forever engraved in the history of Israel as a true friend of ours.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who was the first Israeli politician to congratulate Biden, said it was  “cowardly and shameful” that the country’s top leadership remained silent, and “hurts Israeli interests.”

Lapid added: “If the French president, German chancellor and British prime minister can do it, so can you.”

Channel 12 early Saturday evening reported incorrectly that Netanyahu had removed a photo of himself with Trump from his Twitter account. As of this writing, his personal account still featured prominently a photo showing the two men during a meeting in the Oval Office.

Netanyahu’s Twitter profile, viewed on November 7, 2020 (screen grab)

The official Facebook account of the Prime Minister’s Office also showed Trump, Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the White House lawn at the September 15 ceremony marking Israel’s normalization agreement with the two countries.

On Saturday, Trump refused to accept Biden’s victory, instead making unsubstantiated claims of fraud and vowing to contest the election results in court.

Netanyahu has close personal relationships with both Trump and Biden, though he was widely expected to prefer the outgoing president, who has made several major decisions celebrated by the prime minister, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, exiting the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and backing Israel’s right to maintain all West Bank settlements.

However, Netanyahu did make an effort to stay out of the presidential race, deflecting a question by Trump about whether his rival would have been able to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan.

“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Trump asked the prime minister during an October 24 phone call with Sudanese leaders during which the deal was announced. “Somehow, I don’t think so.”

After a few seconds’ pause, Netanyahu replied: “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America. And we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”

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