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Analysis

For Netanyahu, a vengeful lame duck trumps a (likely) benign Biden

PM has yet to properly congratulate president-elect on winning the US election, mindful of what departing presidents with a grudge can do to Israel on their way out

Raphael Ahren

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

US President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Five days after Joe Biden was projected the winner of the US elections, the president-elect has spoken over the phone to the leaders of Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Japan and even Ireland. As of this writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not yet called the incoming leader of the free world, who is traditionally Israel’s staunchest ally.

A diplomatic source in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel on Thursday that it is “not practice to comment on phone calls to foreign leaders before they take place.”

Netanyahu also waited a whopping twelve hours to issue a lukewarm message of congratulations to Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, on Sunday morning, being one of the last world leaders to comment on the outcome of the presidential election.

That his lackluster statement did not refer to Biden as president-elect, and in fact didn’t even specify what Netanyahu was congratulating Biden and Harris for, probably was not lost on anyone in Washington.

Neither was the stark difference to 2016, when Netanyahu rushed to release a statement to congratulate “president-elect Trump” just one day after the elections. In a phone call a few hours later, the prime minister conveyed his best wishes directly to Trump, who spontaneously invited Netanyahu to Washington. The prime minister replied that he and spouse Sara “are looking forward to meeting him and his wife Melania.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Biden and Netanyahu, one could argue, are starting off on the wrong foot.

Less than a week after Biden was declared president-elect and over two months before he takes office, it is much too early to predict how this relationship will play over the next months, and perhaps years. The president-elect’s aides have publicly indicated that the incoming administration has better things to do than keeping tabs on which foreign leader congratulated them and when.

On the other hand, officials’ diplomatic answers don’t always reflect the grudges they may hold in their hearts.

Either way, Netanyahu’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of the incoming president is not due to carelessness. Rather, he may believe he needs to keep a distance from Biden because he is worried about the outgoing president’s temper.

Trump continues to refuse to concede, and the Israeli prime minister — the husband of a psychologist — could fear that after all the favors the White House has bestowed upon him over the last four years, a heartfelt congratulation for Biden would be seen as a betrayal.

Netanyahu knows from personal experience how much damage a lame-duck president with a bone to pick can cause. In December 2016, then-outgoing US president Barack Obama backed UN Security Council 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlement enterprise, less than a month before Trump’s inauguration.

US ambassador Samantha Power signals her country’s abstention in the Security Council vote on Resolution 2334, December 23, 2016 (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Some Israelis believe that Obama had decided to hit Netanyahu with an anti-settlements resolution even before the election, as a punishment for his vocal opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

But after the UN vote, administration officials said they felt compelled to back the motion mainly because of things the Israeli government said during the transition period.

“The Israeli prime minister recently described his government as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,’ and one of his leading coalition partners recently declared that ‘the era of the two-state solution is over,’” then-US ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers declared minutes after she abstained, thus allowing the resolution to pass.

People don’t like to get burned twice, and Netanyahu knows Trump’s wrath could target even his staunchest allies if he feels betrayed and abandoned by them. The benefits of a cozy start with the Biden administration likely pale in comparison to the potential damage a vengeful Trump could cause Israel.

And exuberant praise for the incoming president is not going to increase Trump’s appetite to pamper Israel with farewell gifts, such as, for instance, harsher sanctions on Iran, before January 20.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joe Biden, January 13, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90)

Netanyahu has been friends with Biden for a long time and knows that the president-elect has warm feelings for Israel. Few believe his administration would do nasty things to Israel just because its prime minister was tardy in properly congratulating him. Yes, the incoming White House’s policies on Iran and the Palestinians are unlikely to align with Israel’s, but that would have been the case regardless of the wording of the prime minister’s congratulatory messages.

Nearly 300 congressional visits to Israel, including 134 by Democrats

Netanyahu’s approach to US politics is a matter of great debate: supporters claim that most Americans see him as a great statesman; critics accuse him of having severely damaged Washington’s bipartisan support for Israel by favoring the Republicans.

It’s impossible to deny, however, that Netanyahu knew how to cultivate an incredibly intimate relationship with Trump. The prime minister understood what he needed to do remain in the president’s good graces, always generous with effusive flattery while never saying anything even slightly critical.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the ceremony for a new town named for US President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, on June 16, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Love it or loathe it, this approach doubtless influenced the administration’s positions on the Middle East, which exceeded by far anything anyone could have imagined four years ago.

Who would have believed at the time that by 2020 the US would have quit the Iran deal, moved its embassy to Jerusalem, declared settlements legitimate and actually encouraged Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank?

Still, the prime minister is likely aware that many left-leaning Americans strongly resent him, not only for his bear hug with Trump but also for agitating in Congress against the Obama-championed Iran deal. Hence he appears to have started an effort to repair his standing with Democrats.

Addressing the Knesset during a debate about the normalization agreement with Bahrain, Netanyahu on Thursday devoted a huge chunk of his speech to rebut claims that he has mismanaged the US-Israel relationship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset plenum during a vote on Israel’s normalization deal with Bahrain, November 10, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset Spokesperson)

“For 38 years I have invested unceasing efforts in strengthening relations with the US, with all of its political sectors, including presidents, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and public opinion,” he declared.

He went on to state that during Trump’s term, 292 congressional visits to Israel took place, stressing that he met with every single member of Congress and senator who made it to Jerusalem — including 134 Democrats.

“I don’t see Republicans or Democrats, just Israel’s interests,” he insisted, holding a physical copy of a list of all the US dignitaries he has met over the years. “I am committed to insist on the vital interests for our existence and future, and I will continue to do so with the next American administration as well.”

His first phone call with president-elect Biden would seem a good place to start, when it finally happens.

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