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Gantz first Israeli leader to congratulate Biden, looks to boost defense ties

Defense minister and alternate PM breaks silence of rest of senior leadership, also thanks Trump for ‘major steps forward in Middle East’; Ashkenazi later tweets own support

US President Donald Trump meets with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in the White House in Washington on January 27, 2020. (Elad Malka)
US President Donald Trump meets with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in the White House in Washington on January 27, 2020. (Elad Malka)

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz congratulated Joe Biden on winning the US presidency early Sunday morning, becoming the first high-ranking member of the government to welcome the former vice president’s election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of his administration have remained notably silent on the election of Biden and defeat of Donald Trump, underlining Jerusalem’s close ties with the incumbent president, who has refused to concede.

“As the election results become final, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to @JoeBiden, a long-time supporter and friend of Israel, and to his running mate,
@KamalaHarris, who has made history as the first woman elected VP.” Gantz tweeted in English at around 4 a.m. Israel time, just as Biden was delivering his victory speech.

“I look forward to continuing to deepen the steadfast bond and strong defense ties between our peoples, as allies in the effort to strengthen democracy, stability, and peace worldwide,” added Gantz, who is alternate prime minister and slated to replace Netanyahu in November 2021, 11 months after Biden is set to take office.

Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, also thanked Trump for being “committed to [Israel’s] security and invested in its future.”

“The Middle East has taken major steps forward thanks to the president’s bold leadership over these four years, and for that we are immensely grateful,” he wrote.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also from Blue and White, tweeted congratulations to Biden about two hours after Gantz.

“The President’s-elect friendship and distinguished record of support for Israel dates back nearly half a century. I strongly believe that under his leadership the strategic indispensable alliance between our two countries will continue to flourish and prosper,” he wrote. He did not include a message thanking Trump.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have remained strikingly mum on Biden, even as congratulations have poured in from around the world. Netanyahu had built a close relationship with Trump and his administration, which reversed decades of US policy by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and removing opposition to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump and Republicans in his corner had led to concerns of a loss of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

In contrast, Gantz and Trump only met once publicly, for brief talks ahead of the unveiling of the administration’s Middle East peace plan in January, while he was still running against Netanyahu. After entering the government, he was kept out of US-brokered talks about normalization with other Arab states.

President Reuven Rivlin also had not publicly commented on the US election by the time of this writing.

A protester holds signs during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

However, many other Israeli politicians, including at least one member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White), did quickly congratulate Biden on his election. Likud’s Nir 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.”

Trump has refused to concede defeat, making unsubstantiated allegations of serious fraud and vowing to take his case to the courts.

The Walla news site on Saturday evening quoted unnamed sources close to Netanyahu saying that he was “waiting for the official results,” which may not be finalized for several days as states certify their vote counts.

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.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Netanyahu is in Washington to participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords.(Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu, who also has a close personal relationship with Biden, made some effort to stay out of the presidential race. Last month, he deflected 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.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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