It’s Time for Biden to Call Netanyahu
He might want to avoid controversy right now, but he can't avoid our most valuable ally in the Middle East.
Rip off the Band-Aid, Mr. President.
We’re one month into the Biden administration and the president still has not called the prime minister of Israel, America’s most valuable ally in the Middle East. Admittedly, the sky is not falling. There is still plenty of time for the two leaders to speak. And there are plenty of senior officials downstream in the U.S. bureaucracy who are engaging with their Israeli counterparts. Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Meir Ben Shabbat, Netanyahu’s NSA. Innumerable other American bureaucrats are working with their counterparts in Jerusalem, too. The U.S.-Israel relationship is both wide and deep.
Nevertheless, critics of the president and his loyalists are attacking and defending the silence along partisan lines. The longer the pause before the call, the more fears mount of a return to the bad old days of acrimony between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, when the White House lowered its shield, allowing the United Nations to pass a horribly one-sided Security Council resolution against Israel denying its very heritage in Jerusalem.
Spoiler: It is not going to be that bad. Biden is a pragmatist who values the alliance. The same can be said for a number of his top advisers, even if there are some ideologues (Rob Malley, most notably) among them.
But as this pregnant pause stretches into its second month of gestation, there are some obvious warning signs.
First, this is a clear deviation from the norm. This is particularly noteworthy after four years of Democrats decrying how the Trump administration violated norm after norm (which it did). President Bill Clinton called Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on January 23 and met with Rabin two months later. President George W. Bush called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on February 6. President Barack Obama spoke with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on January 2 (before inauguration). He called Netanyahu on April 1, the day after Netanyahu was sworn in. President Donald Trump spoke with Netanyahu on January 22, and hosted the Israeli prime minister the following month. We could go back further in time, but you get the point.
Then there is the assertion that the president is more than justified in postponing his call with Netanyahu because foreign policy is less important these days. To be sure, there are many pressing domestic agenda items that Biden must prioritize: the pandemic, the economy, and the fractured Washington politics that prompted security officials to wrap the Capitol in concertina wire.
But if Biden has in fact decided to keep the focus at home, how has he made time for Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Justin Trudeau (Canada), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Mexico), Boris Johnson (U.K.), and others? An obvious answer to this question is that Biden has time for foreign policy issues on our immediate borders (Canada and Mexico), great power competition (Russia and China), and repairing transatlantic alliances (U.K.) after four years of Trump administration policies that strained those ties. This makes perfect sense.
Here’s what doesn’t make sense: The Biden administration continues to issue statements about its intent to return to the highly controversial 2015 Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Biden and Blinken tapped controversial figure Rob Malley as the envoy to try to resurrect that agreement. The appointment is one of several unmistakable signs that the Middle East remains a significant area of interest for this White House.
Here’s press secretary Jen Psaki: “If Iran comes back into full compliance with the obligations under the JCPOA… the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”
Here’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken: “President Biden has been very clear on this. He’s said that if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the agreement, we would do the same thing.”
And here’s Jake Sullivan: “We are actively engaged with the European Union right now, particularly the three members of the P5+1: Germany, the UK, and France. We are talking to them at various levels of our government. Those consultations, I think, will produce a unified front when it comes to our strategy towards Iran and towards dealing with diplomacy around the nuclear file.”
So, the intent is clear. The Iran deal remains a priority. Therefore, the Middle East remains a foreign policy priority. Cue the contentious debate.
During the last go-round, the Israelis emerged as the most effective and outspoken critics of the Iran deal. From public statements to private meetings, the Israelis were both relentless and substantive in their opposition. This was perfectly understandable given that Israel is within range of Iran’s missiles. Also, Iran has been perfectly honest about the fact that it seeks the destruction of the Jewish state.
But the Israelis were certainly not the only critics of the deal. The JCPOA will go down as one of the most controversial foreign policy initiatives in modern American history for its generous sanctions relief to the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and for its sunset clauses that granted Iran permission in 12 years to return to the illicit nuclear activity that it never admitted it was pursuing in the first place. The deal provoked harsh criticism from Republicans and national security hawks. The Gulf Arab states—notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain—are aligned in opposition to a return to the JCPOA. Indeed, they stand opposed to any deal that doesn’t stop Iranian enrichment, regional aggression, and missile development.
But, without question, the foremost critic of the deal was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama resented him, not only for his controversial address to a joint session of Congress on the topic in 2015, but for this constant messaging on the matter at every turn.
With the Iran deal back on the table, the rather severe policy disagreement between the prime minister and America’s new president is quite likely to pick up right where it left off. And, if anything, the Israelis have more ammunition now, given that Iran has crossed many redlines since 2015.
President Biden is trying to avoid controversy early on in his presidency. He is admirably trying hard to be a healer and a uniter. But with the JCPOA as his signature foreign policy, he may find that increasingly difficult. For now, he appears to be deliberately pressing pause on what will quickly escalate into a heated debate, both at home and abroad. In the interim, he has his top officials—Blinken and Sullivan—quietly engaging with Israel and other opponents of the JCPOA.
Here’s the problem: The longer Biden waits to engage, the more his silence can run the risk of signaling a deeper problem with Israel. Critics are already deriding his foreign policy as “Obama’s third term.”
There is an easy way for Biden to disabuse his critics of this notion. He needs to rip off the Band-Aid. He should speak to Netanyahu. It can be quick and breezy if they table the JCPOA discussion for another time. Or it can be substantive and potentially uncomfortable if they want to get down to business. Either way, it’s time to cut the act. The U.S.-Israel relationship is just fine—but the JCPOA looms large. Expect turbulence ahead.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies.