What happened: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday that President Biden’s first call with a Middle East leader will be with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- Psaki added: “Israel is of course an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship, and our team is fully engaged, not at the head of state level quite yet but very soon.”
- In a rare interview on Channel 12 News on Monday night, Netanyahu recognised differences of opinion with President Biden over Iran and Palestinian issues, but said they enjoy a “very strong” working relationship.
- Relating to the absence of a call so far Netanyahu said, “He’ll call … we have had very strong, friendly relations for nearly 40 years, dating from the time I came to Washington as an Israeli diplomatic representative and he was a young senator from Delaware.”
Context: There is some surprise in Israel that nearly a month into Biden’s presidency he has not yet called Netanyahu. Biden’s predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both called the prime minister in their first days of taking office.
- The president has spoken with several US allies, including leaders in UK, Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, Germany, South Korea. He has not yet spoken with any leader from the Middle East.
- Over the weekend, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Gilad Erdan explained that Biden was preoccupied with domestic issues, primarily the coronavirus pandemic and helping the economy recover.
- Others have speculated that the non-call relates to residual animosity over Netanyahu’s behaviour during the Obama administration, with several key figures returning to senior positions in the current administration.
- However, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan have already spoken twice discussing Iran, regional issues and advancing the Abraham Accords.
- In addition, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have also spoken twice. In their most recent call, on Monday, Ashkenazi thanked Blinken for his public support after the International Criminal Court Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision last week to green-light an investigation into Israel and the Palestinians over potential war crimes. The pair discussed “joint efforts to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons and undermine regional stability”. Ashkenazi also thanked Blinken and US President Biden for their “deep commitment to Israeli security and the strategic alliance between our countries”.
- For the last two weeks, the IDF and US military have been holding their annual bilateral “Juniper Falcon” exercise. According to the US Embassy, “The exercise is designed to enhance interoperability between both nations’ militaries and ensure US and Israeli forces are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency, particularly those involving ballistic missile defence or crisis response.”
Looking ahead: The call between Biden and Netanyahu is expected to take place in the next few days.
- National security advisers Ben-Shabbat and Sullivan plan to continue a dialogue on the Iranian nuclear threat.