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White House says Biden will call Netanyahu ‘soon’ as speculation of rift grows

While not setting time for call, press secretary downplays fact two leaders haven’t spoken since inauguration, insists they have a close relationship

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US Vice President Joe Biden speak prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.(AP/Michel Euler)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US Vice President Joe Biden speak prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.(AP/Michel Euler)

The White House said Thursday that US President Joe Biden will speak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “soon,” as questions accumulate in the media as to why the two haven’t had their traditional first phone call since the inauguration over three weeks ago.

“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.”

“The president looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s obviously someone he has a longstanding relationship with and obviously there’s an important relationship that the US has with Israel on the security front as a key partner in the region,” Psaki added.

Secretary of State Antony 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 lack of a phone call three weeks into the Biden administration has still been seen by some as a snub, as the president has spoken with the leaders of several other countries since taking office.

“I interpret it as a clear sign of displeasure,” said former Israeli consul-general in New York Dani Dayan. The former diplomat is now running for Knesset with the New Hope party, which is seeking to replace Netanyahu.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served in the Obama administration and is also a rumored candidate for the job under Biden, downplayed the matter in a Thursday webinar organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America. The former envoy pointed out that the president was speaking first with leaders of countries at the top of his foreign policy agenda, which Washington has said will focus more primarily on combatting the global influences of China and Russia, and relatively less so on the Middle East.

“This is not about Israel or about anything that happened in the Obama or Trump years. It’s simply about what President Biden’s priorities are,” Shapiro said.

Former State Department official and current Brookings Institute scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes, who also took part in the webinar, concurred with Shapiro. On Wednesday, she tweeted, “It’s almost like election season in Israel leads people to make mountainside[s] out of molehills. Biden and Bibi spoke in November and APNSA, SecDef and SecState have all spoken to their Israeli counterparts. There is no lack of engagement.”

Netanyahu was one of just two Middle East leaders who received a call from Biden after he won the presidential election in November.

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