After 19 days, the unringing phone in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has become impossible to ignore, resonating louder than any actual conversation he could have had with US President Joe Biden by now. After nearly three weeks of silence from the United States to its closest ally in the region, and an indispensable partner in countering Iran’s malign ambitions, some Israelis are starting to worry.
Growing numbers of observers do not see the non-call as a minor snub, a harmless move in the game of diplomatic protocol. It has become a reason for them to start wondering about the new US administration’s approach to the region, and its willingness to let go of the past in order to solve today’s pressing challenges.
At first, it was not necessarily a problem at all. Biden’s phone calls to foreign leaders during his first week in office showed a focus on his most pressing issues: immigration and trade (Mexico, Canada), shoring up the NATO alliance against Russia (UK, France, Germany, NATO secretary-general, Russia), and sending signals to China and North Korea, with calls to South Korea and Australia.
Nobody in Jerusalem or Washington harbored any illusions that Israel would be near the top of Biden’s agenda. But it is unlikely that many thought Biden would go three weeks without even a courtesy call to Netanyahu or any other Mideast leader.
Adding to Biden’s apparent cold shoulder was the president’s decision to omit any mention of Israel or other allies in a major foreign policy address on February 4. He touched on the Middle East in the context of the Yemen civil war and threats to Saudi Arabia, but that was it.
Netanyahu downplayed the issue Monday, saying he expects Biden to call him soon. Netanyahu said Biden is phoning world leaders “as he sees fit,” and predicted they would speak when he starts reaching out to Middle Eastern leaders.
Few are buying Netanyahu’s attempts to shrug off the apparent snub.
“I interpret it as a clear sign of displeasure,” said Dani Dayan, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, who is now running for the Knesset with the New Hope party.
He noted that Netanyahu and Biden were not starting off with a clean slate, given the frosty relationship between the prime minister and Obama, which often spilled into the open.
“I hope it’s a symbolic thing to show their displeasure that will not have serious political consequences in the decision-making process,” said Dayan, who invested significant effort into building ties with Democratic officials while in New York.
Even if it is symbolic, it could have dangerous consequences. The very fact that there has not been a phone call could be read by some malign actors as a sign that the US no longer has Israel’s back, said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
“It’s unclear why President Biden would wish to signal to all of Israel’s enemies that the United States doesn’t stand with our most important ally in the Middle East.”
She described the non-phone call as “bizarre, inappropriate, immature.”
It’s not just Israel in the region that’s worried about the White House’s ghosting.
The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported on Saturday that Gulf leaders are worried about President Joe Biden’s approach to the Middle East. The report quoted an Egyptian source expressing displeasure in the fact that Biden has taken so long to contact Middle Eastern leaders, claiming that the White House was set on solving its stand-off with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal before wading into the larger Middle East.
“Washington has a problem with Arab regimes under its patronage — Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia…” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. “On the one hand, they are key allies, while on the other hand, their actions run counter to the administration’s agenda on human and civil rights.”
Biden is slowly putting together a balanced approach, said Albo, but America’s Sunni allies are grumbling. “They want unqualified support, primarily against the Iranian threat. They understand there is a problem with the administration in this context.”
(Full disclosure: Albo and the writer have previously co-authored research papers at the Jerusalem Institute for Security Studies.)
In the meantime, the Middle East’s challenges have not gone away. Iran continues to move its nuclear program forward. Tehran’s proxies smuggle weapons that may be used against Israel and carry out attacks on US forces. Dangerous terrorist groups still carry out lethal assaults and gain new recruits. Regional powers Turkey and Egypt jockey for position across the Middle East, and threaten to destabilize the region further.
“President Donald Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners…” then-candidate Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs in March. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.”
So far, in the Middle East, this has mostly taken the form of working out how to re-enter the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. On this and a slew of other challenges directly related to Iran, the US and Israel would presumably seek to be on the same page, or at least signal to the world that they are.
While Biden’s approach may reflect the American public’s lack of appetite for getting sucked into the Middle East’s problems after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is safe to assume that Biden will still expend significant time and effort on existing Middle East challenges, and on those that will inevitably force themselves onto his agenda during his tenure.
These can range from Iran’s destabilizing activity to Russia’s military presence to Syria’s ongoing civil war to tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over gas resources, plus what remains of the Islamic State, conflicts in Libya and Yemen, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and more.
The US will need to coordinate closely with Israel on almost all of them. And that will mean picking up the phone.
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