Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Almost a month into his presidency, Joe Biden has yet to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At a briefing last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the call will take place “soon.”
But the noticeable delay from the President, who has known the Prime Minister for decades and once even wrote, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you,” cannot be an oversight. It’s surely a calculated effort to demonstrate that there will be no return to the Israel-centric policies of the Donald Trump years. And while Israel will remain America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Biden is planning a reset. Unlike his predecessor, Biden is likely to be a pro-Israeli president but not necessarily a pro-Netanyahu one.
That said, Biden has several pressing domestic issues to attend to. Confronting a delayed transition, he’s now focused on combating the worst public health crisis in a century, repairing a flailing economy and trying to do his best to heal a bitterly polarized nation.
In addition, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have already had multiple contacts with their Israeli counterparts. In other words, the Biden administration has not lost Netanyahu’s phone number.
And yet in his visit to the State Department last week, Biden listed America’s “closest friends” with whom he had spoken – Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Britain, France, South Korea and even NATO. Biden didn’t mention Israel – the Middle East’s only democratic polity – anywhere in his address.
In contrast, then-President Donald Trump called Netanyahu within days of assuming the presidency. The former President also showered Netanyahu with unilateral gestures both big and small, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; moving the US Embassy there; and, weeks before one of Netanyahu’s elections, extending US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Obviously, Biden is not Trump. And the pro-Netanyahu sugar high of the Trump years – largely driven by Trump’s need to placate domestic political constituencies – is over.
The delay in calling Netanyahu also signals a likely shift in priorities: Not only is Biden dealing with the most challenging domestic recovery of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, but he also seems to view the Middle East, with the exception of Iran, as less of a central concern than China and Asia at large. Sullivan indicated as much by upsizing the national security staff on Asia and downsizing the Middle East.
At the same time, make no mistake, Biden isn’t former President Barack Obama when it comes to Israel. He’s more like former President Bill Clinton, for whom support of Israel ran deep. For eight years, I watched Clinton demonstrate a profound pro-Israel sensibility, whether it came to Israeli security or his regard for the state that Israelis had created. Grieving at the funeral of the murdered prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, he would later write in his memoirs the he “had come to love (Rabin) as I had rarely loved another man.”
Similarly, Biden has a long and consistent track record of supporting Israel since his first visit in 1973. He has been a strong proponent of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, even helping to shape Israel’s $38 billion multi-year security package as vice president.
Obama tried to go big on both the Iran nuclear weapons issue and an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, virtually guaranteeing tension with the right-wing Netanyahu. Biden is prioritizing Iran, but, as both he and Blinken have admitted, progress will be slow toward any two-state solution. Indeed, the Biden administration has said it will let Trump’s decision on the US Embassy in Jerusalem stand; administration members have warmly praised their predecessors’ Abraham Accords – normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; and they have not rolled back Trump’s declaration of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, essential to normalizing ties between Israel and Morocco.
Biden clearly has no illusions about Netanyahu. He surely knows that his own approach to both Palestinians and Iranians differ significantly from Netanyahu’s. It was Biden, after all, who was deeply embarrassed by Israel’s 2010 announcement of major expansion of housing units in East Jerusalem. It came on the heels of the Obama administration launching an effort to persuade Israel to do the exact opposite. And, unlike Trump, Biden is not going to shower Netanyahu with gifts or boost the Prime Minister’s electoral prospects. With a fourth Israeli election only five weeks away, Biden is extremely unlikely to make any gesture that would demonstrate a preference for a political candidate.
Of course, the President isn’t looking to create tensions with Netanyahu, let alone have a sustained fight. And on the Middle East issue of greatest concern – how to manage Iranian nuclear expansion – he’ll likely try to understand Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and to coordinate, if possible. With regard to Palestinians and a two-state solution, he’ll likely refrain from pressing, largely because the prospects of progress right now are slim to none.
But if Netanyahu tries to undermine the President’s efforts to reengage Iran – as he did with Obama – or force his hand with major settlement expansion, let alone annexation, Biden will surely push back. The President is a believer in a strong US-Israel relationship and understands that mutual respect and reciprocity are key to seeing it thrive. But his support is for Israel, not Netanyahu, and that may become painfully clear if Israel’s Prime Minister can’t or won’t accept those two critically important rules of the road.