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Israelis ask, why hasn’t the U.S. president called their prime minister yet?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/11/2021 Steve Hendrix
Joe Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to a man in a suit and tie: In this Nov. 7, 2010 photo, Vice President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Orleans. © Gerald Herbert/AP In this Nov. 7, 2010 photo, Vice President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Orleans.

JERUSALEM —Is Biden ghosting Bibi?

Since President Biden took office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is known here, has been waiting for the traditional courtesy call from the Oval Office. After all, both Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama reached the prime minister within days of taking their oaths of office.

But three weeks into his term, as Biden has worked deep into his Rolodex of world leaders without dialing Netanyahu’s Balfour Street office, much of Israel’s political class is ready to declare it a full-blown diplomatic snub. In the president’s “thundering silence,” some see a long-feared frosty tumble from the warm embrace Netanyahu enjoyed with Trump.

[After Trump’s dramatic tilt toward Israel, Biden likely to restore traditional approach]

“Biden and his aides aim to tell Netanyahu, ‘You’re nothing special,’” security analyst Yossi Melman wrote in the daily Haaretz. “‘The personal connection and chemistry you had with Donald Trump not only fail to advance your standing in Washington, they’re an obstacle.’”

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Officials in both capitals have dismissed the idea that Biden’s call log carries any coded rebuke of Israel or its head of government. The White House says that Biden is dialing region by region and that the Middle East is coming up.

The president’s first calls, to Mexico and Canada, and to European and Asian capitals, addressed issues including immigration, trade, climate change, NATO and containing China, according to reports. The White House has also been consumed by a raging pandemic and economic crisis.

“There’s no reason for any drama,” said Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, who expects Netanyahu’s phone to ring soon. “Biden took office at a time of national emergency that no president has faced since FDR. The calls he has conducted reflect those priorities.”

Netanyahu himself downplayed the possibility that he was being slighted by the new president. The prime minister noted that he and Biden have known each other for decades and that he called Biden soon after he was declared the winner of the election in November.

“He is making calls to world leaders according to the order he sees fit,” Netanyahu said when questioned about Biden during an appearance with the Greek prime minister in Jerusalem this week. “The Israel-U.S. alliance is strong, and so is our friendship of almost 40 years, though we may not agree on everything.”

Asked about when Biden might place the call, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that he “looks forward” to speaking with Netanyahu. “He’s obviously somebody that he has a long-standing relationship with, and obviously there’s an important relationship that the United States has with Israel on the security front and as a key partner in the region. But he’ll be talking with him soon,” Psaki said. She added that she did not have a specific date or time.

Netanyahu has built his image as a political colossus, in part by touting his speed-dial relationships with leaders around the world and in Washington in particular. In three previous elections, he boasted of commanding a near hotline to Trump via then-U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, the president’s former bankruptcy lawyer.

The Trump White House seemed willing to help. Several major concessions to Netanyahu, such as supporting the annexation of the Golan Heights, were announced shortly before Israeli voters went to the polls.

Now, with Israel’s fourth election in two years scheduled for March 23, the contrast with a White House that hasn’t yet made a phone call must sting, according to those who know the prime minister.

“There is no doubt that he is not happy about this,” said Aviv Bushinsky, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and media adviser. “I think Netanyahu will see it as a lack of respect.”

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The no-phone-call chatter reached a pitch Wednesday when Israel’s former United Nations envoy, Danny Danon, tweeted a list of countries that Biden has already called leaders of and attached a number for the prime minister’s office (one that had been disconnected, as it turned out). “Might it now be time to call the leader of Israel, the closest ally of the US?” he asked.

Many political commentators saw that as an attempt to humiliate Netanyahu by Danon, who is viewed as a possible future Netanyahu rival. But there has been fear within their Likud party that Biden’s victory will mean a return to the chilly relations Israel had with the Obama White House.

Those years were fraught with sniping over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including the announcement of a major settlement expansion in the midst of a visit by then-Vice President Biden. The acrimony was capped when Obama chose not to veto an anti-settlement resolution in the U.N. Security Council at the end of his term.

Worries have only grown as the new president has populated many of his top diplomatic and security jobs with Obama alumni as well as Biden’s promise to resume nuclear negotiations with Iran, another point of friction from the previous era.

“It’s starting to sound like that old music again,” Bushinsky said.

While both sides have said the long personal relationship between two leaders who call each other “my old friend” will ease the tensions, the growing contretemps around the first phone call has confirmed fears that Israel has already slipped in importance.

Israelis, Bushinsky noted, are finely attuned to the standing accorded their leaders in the United States, by far Israel’s most important international partner. In non-pandemic times, the public here would be waiting for the prime minister’s first visit to Washington and poring over the details of protocol.

“Did they fire the cannons? Did he stay at Blair House? Israelis pay attention to these things,” Bushinsky said. “Now he can’t go there, but not even a phone call? It is an issue.”

Israeli government collapses, sending country back to elections for fourth time in two years After Trump’s largesse, Israeli leader faces a reset with Biden in the White House With a conflict over Iran looming, Israel sends a new envoy for the post-Trump era
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