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What’s in a phone call? Joe Biden’s caution towards Israel may hinge on sensitive election

The two leaders, pictured in 2016, have known each other for decades – GETTY IMAGES

After weeks of speculation from Israeli diplomats and reporters about why Joe Biden was delaying his first call to one of America’s closest allies, the US president has finally spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the hour-long call has done little to dampen the suggestion that Mr Biden is deliberately keeping the Israeli leader at arm’s length.

In the four weeks since Mr Biden took office, he has spoken with the leaders of virtually every other US ally – as well as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.

Danny Danon, from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party, made clear the frustrations many of his colleagues felt at the snub, tweeting a list of the countries Mr Biden had already called.

“Might it now be time to call the leader of Israel, the closest ally of the US?” he concluded.

Conservative politicians in the US, including former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, also accused the Biden administration of “snubbing” Israel.

Faced with repeated questions over the delay, the White House eventually insisted there was no “intentional diss”, but the comments did little to allay Israeli concerns.

There are legitimate reasons to believe Mr Biden has been deliberately cool towards his Israeli counterpart.

Mr Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to underscore his tight bond with Donald Trump over the last four years – using photographs of himself with the former Republican leader in election campaign adverts and even naming new Israeli settlements after Mr Trump.

And the Israeli leader has likely irked the new president by acting to pre-emptively counter his new policies, for instance approving settlements on West Bank land claimed by Palestinians after the US election, and delivering publicly rejecting Mr Biden’s plans to the Iran nuclear agreement.

The argument could also be made that Mr Biden’s delay in speaking with Mr Netanyahu stems from a desire to appear impartial ahead of Israel’s elections next month. But there is no doubt that by placing Mr Netanyahu far down on his call list, the Democratic president is signalling his intention to reset America’s relations in the post-Trump era.

Biden is reframing US relations with leaders across the Middle East - AP

Biden is reframing US relations with leaders across the Middle East – AP

The Biden administration has said it plans to renew relations with the Palestinian leadership and restore US aid to programmes that were ended by Mr Trump.

It is not just Israel that Mr Biden intends to reframe relations with. The White House announced on Tuesday that it intends to “recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” by conducting diplomacy through 85-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz rather than his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The crown prince, widely referred to as MBS, is considered by many to be the de facto leader of the country and enjoyed warm relations with Mr Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. But his prestige suffered a blow after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

When Mr Biden eventually makes his first call to Saudi Arabia, the White House said it will be “counterpart to counterpart,” which is to say the new president does not intend to call MBS.

“That’s certainly a shift from the approach of the prior administration,” Mr Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged.


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