It is no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not like to deal with American Democratic administrations such as Obama’s or Biden’s, as they are likely to push for a settlement with the Palestinians and undertake a nuclear agreement with Iran.
However, since it took US President Joe Biden almost a month following his inauguration to make time for a phone conversation with Netanyahu, this made headlines in the Israeli media. By early February, Biden had already contacted several world leaders, including those of NATO, Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan.
It was hard to believe Netanyahu, who congratulated Biden on his electoral triumph against Donald Trump only two hours after it was declared on 7 November, had waited so long to speak to the new US president despite the historical strategic alliance between both states.
It had come to a point when Israeli reporters were making comparisons with how previous US presidents acted on this issue. According to a Haaretz report published on 2 February, former president Barack Obama — with whom Biden worked as vice president— called then Israeli premier Ehud Olmert only two days after he entered the White House. Trump too had a conversation with Netanyahu 48 hours after his inauguration, even inviting him for talks in the White House.
But there is bad blood between the two men, according to Ian Lustick, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, for Biden was “personally insulted” by Netanyahu during the Obama administration when a large expansion of settlement was declared precisely during his visit to Jerusalem. Lustick, author of new book called Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality, added that Biden’s team has more doubt about whether the two-state solution is even worth trying to implement and will therefore keep its distance from Israel, expecting that Netanyahu will not be prime minister after the next election.
Even if, like Obama, Biden considers Netanyahu a “double-dealing political opportunist”, he will not clash with him in the same way, by calling for a settlement freeze and trying hard for productive peace talks, which proved ineffective.
Daniel Serwer, an ex-US State Department official and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that Biden would prefer to deal with an Israeli centrist or leftist premier, although even such an option has its own problems. “Yes, but that isn’t likely. Some of the alternatives to Netanyahu are worse than he is. I don’t think however that Biden will back opponents to Netanyahu,” Serwer stressed.
An arguably similar line of argument was shared by Joel Beinin, Stanford’s emeritus professor of Mideastern history, who explained that Biden’s preference of Israeli prime minister “is of no consequence”. Beinin added that Biden will “not even obliquely” express it before the 23 March election. “In any case, it’s possible that either Netanyahu or someone just as right-wing or more so (Gideon Saar or Naftali Bennett) will lead the next Israeli government,” he expected.
Beinin, meanwhile, highlighted that Biden’s “highest foreign policy priorities” are China, Russia and restoring Iran’s nuclear deal. Unlike “a resolution to the question of Palestine”, he argued, this is doable in the short run. “So Biden’s regional policy will focus on that. Netanyahu won’t like it. But Biden will probably ignore him on this.”
Surprisingly enough, Israel’s long-serving prime minister expressed zero anger about the delay in receiving a call from the US head of state. In early February, Netanyahu said in a press briefing that the US-Israeli alliance remains strong, nonetheless noting that “it doesn’t mean we will agree on everything.” “[President Biden] calls leaders in the order that he finds acceptable, North America, then Europe,” Netanyahu said. “He hasn’t reached the Middle East yet. I presume he will call me. Believe me, I have no doubt about it.”
Even before the call took place, policy agreements and differences between the leaders seemed to be sufficiently clear. The Biden administration said it supports the recent Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements that were sponsored by Trump, and emphasised it will not reverse the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Washington’s recognition of the latter as the capital of Israel.
But both sides do not seem to have the exact same views on the Golan Heights. Asked by CNN in early February on whether Biden sees the Golan Heights as part of Israel, the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we would look at. We are nowhere near that.
“Leaving aside the legalities, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel's security as long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself,” said the top US diplomat. One day later, in an angry response, Netanyahu said “with an agreement or without an agreement, we are not leaving the Golan. It will remain under the sovereignty of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu tweeted last Wednesday that his hour-long call with Biden was “very warm and friendly”, and his office said they tackled the “Iranian threat” of building nuclear weapons, Covid-19 and Israel’s desire to establish normalisation deals with further Arab states. Biden said “we had a good conversation” in which he discussed the need for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Khaled Elgindy, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI), told Al-Ahram Weekly that Biden will probably seek to minimise any differences with Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue, both because it is not a major priority for the new administration and because of Biden’s interest in returning to the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu opposes. “There is no doubt that Biden would rather deal with a less right-wing government in Israel. However, he is unlikely to openly back Netanyahu’s opponents or do anything that might look like outside interference in Israeli elections,” Elgindy pointed out.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly