February 15, 2021
Despite his heavy domestic agenda President Biden has been calling foreign leaders.
Last Thursday, in a Jerusalem Post article titled, “What signals is Biden sending about his Middle East policy?”, Herb Keinon took a look at why the 46th President of the United States still has not called PM Netanyahu.[i]
As I read the article I thought, “that makes the two of us.”
Mr. Keinon says, the first impressions former President Barack Obama left on Israel were largely negative, traveling during his first 16 weeks in office to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, but pointedly bypassing Israel. The first impression Donald Trump left on Israel was positive: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the third foreign leader he called after taking office, a signal that the icy relationship that existed between Netanyahu and the Obama administration was a thing of the past.
He says there may be many good reasons why Biden has called the leaders of a dozen other countries before phoning Netanyahu. This could be because Biden has so much on his plate; or it could be that the Biden non-call has to do with the Israeli election campaign, with the new president not wanting to get sucked into the campaign. It also could be, he continues, that Israelis are just overly sensitive about these types of issues, and that it really does not matter whether Israel’s prime minister is the third or thirty-third leader called by a newly sworn-in US president.
Mr. Keinon then concludes all that could be true, but the non-call is creating a first impression, and it is not a good one, giving the impression of an intentional snub which is being widely interpreted as such both in Israel and abroad.
Beyond a shadow of doubt, President Obama was also a friend of Israel but he had a more balanced view of the Middle East. Mr. Trump, to use PM Netanyahu’s words, was “the greatest friend that Israel has had in the White House”. Moreover, the Trumps and the Netanyahus were family. Mr. Trump found a way to support him in every Israeli election.
President Biden’s foreign policy would not be a duplicate of Mr. Obama’s. But it would remain on the same path. After all, Mr. Biden was President Obama’s Vice President for eight years and they enjoyed a fine relationship. And he may also remember PM Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 visit to Washington, only two weeks before the Israeli elections.
The visit was a breach of protocol because an invitation to a head of state or government can be extended by no other official than his or her counterpart, who is the head of state or government of that country. In that case, however, it was House Speaker John Boehner who invited Mr. Netanyahu to visit Washington without properly consulting the White House. He was wrong to extend the invitation and Mr. Netanyahu was wrong to accept it. President Obama declined to meet him.
At the time, the White House correctly referred to a “long-standing practice and principle” by which the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections. This was in line with international practice as acting otherwise would be seen as interference in the internal affairs of another state.
In his address to the Congress PM blasted the Iran nuclear deal. President Obama responded in the Oval Office, declaring that Mr. Netanyahu had offered “nothing new.”
If President Biden’s non-call is a snub, the visit was more than that. It was an assault on President Obama in his own capital before his own parliament.
As Mr. Keinon has pointed out, President Obama visited Ankara on his first trip abroad as US president. The visit could mark the beginning of expanded cooperation between two traditional allies. Unfortunately, the relationship turned sour. Vice President Biden visited Turkey more than once to patch up differences. Despite the fine talk there was no progress. Towards the end of President Obama’s second term, Obama-bashing had become fashionable in Ankara’s public discourse. Obviously, Turkish leadership was wrong to put all its eggs in Mr. Trump’s basket and to assume that he would be re-elected. Not only he was not elected, but more than that he was succeeded by President Biden.
So now, for once, PM Netanyahu and President Erdogan are in the same boat, both being on the late calls list. But that is just an appearance. Regardless of the outcome of the March 23, 2021 election, Israel-US strategic partnership will continue whereas for Ankara and Washington there is a tough path ahead, the main challenge being the imperative to redefine, hopefully in a positive light, the Turkey-US relationship. While waiting for the call, why not give some thought to repairing the Turkish-Israeli relationship? It may prove more than a useful pastime.