'He's committed to the relationship'

Former US envoy to Israel says timing of Biden phone call ‘utterly irrelevant’

Amid snub rumors, Obama’s envoy Dan Shapiro says it’s nothing personal against Netanyahu — Biden is just focused on domestic issues, Russia and China; expects conversation soon

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in Tel Aviv in 2011 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in Tel Aviv in 2011 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

The US ambassador to Israel under president Barack Obama is not at all concerned by the fact that the leaders of the US and Israel have not spoken three weeks into Joe Biden’s term.

“How he has spent his time, and the leaders he has spoken to, is a very clear reflection of the priorities and the emergencies that he inherits as president,” Dan Shapiro told the Times of Israel Thursday. “I don’t think there’s any other explanation.”

The lack of a phone call is seen by some as an intentional snub, as the president has spoken with the leaders of several other countries since taking office. He has yet to speak to any Middle Eastern leaders.

“He’s taking office facing more crises and emergencies both at home and abroad than any president since Franklin Roosevelt,” said Shapiro. “He’s been very disciplined about focusing on those priorities. At home, it’s addressing the crisis of the pandemic. It’s providing economic relief. It’s building toward more racial justice. And it’s building an administration committed to confronting climate change.”

“Overseas it’s restoring core US alliances, which are with NATO and with Asian countries,” Shapiro continued. “It’s restoring US leadership on multilateral organizations and transnational challenges that has been lacking. It’s addressing the challenge of a rising China, a global strategic rival to the United States, and dealing with an aggressive Russia.”

President Joe Biden taks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, January 26, 2021 (Screen capture)

Indeed, Biden’s phone calls to foreign leaders during his first week in office showed a focus on 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.

“The Middle East is not on that first tier, but it’s not unimportant,” Shapiro stressed. “And Israel is not unimportant. The call will happen. I’m certain the call will happen fairly soon.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have all spoken with their Israeli counterparts, and CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. visited Israel.

“The relationship is moving, it’s productive, he’s committed to it,” said Shapiro.

The White House said Thursday that Biden will speak to Netanyahu “soon.”

“He’ll be talking with him soon. I don’t have a specific date or time for you on that,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in response to a question from a reporter, who also referenced a tweet from former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon that scolded Biden for not phoning the leader of “the closest ally of the US.”

Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters on, February 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Blinken was also asked about the issue on Monday and told CNN, “I’m sure that they’ll have occasion to speak in the near future.

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.”

Shapiro dismisses this idea. “Iran knows that the United States is committed to  preventing it from having a nuclear weapon, and to addressing security threats  to other nations and to partners of the United States in the region.”

“The timing of a phone call is utterly irrelevant.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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