Ken Toltz
Israel-based writer

Waiting for the Call

Netanyahu and Trump campaign poster 'in a league of their own' (personal photo)
Netanyahu Campaign Poster 'in a league of their own' 2019. (personal photo)

Turns out the new Biden administration can walk and chew gum at the same time. Many keen observers of United States-Israel relations had predicted the incoming Biden administration would deprioritize engagement in the Middle East. Choosing instead, observers suggested, a concentration in the first months of the new term on fighting the coronavirus, economic dislocation, growth of dangerous extremists at home, placing relationships with Israel and the region on low to simmer for the foreseeable future.

Yet in just the first 10 days, nearly every foreign policy/national security professional nominated by President Biden, have been visible and vocal in outreach and public statements reinforcing the ongoing commitment to historic support of Israel. With the glaring exception of, engagement with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The top US officials reaching out to their Israeli counterparts include:

  1. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan summed up his conversation with Meir Ben Shabbat, “Mr. Sullivan confirmed the United States will closely consult with Israel on all matters of regional security. He also extended an invitation to begin a strategic dialogue in the near term to continue substantive discussions.”
  2. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his confirmation hearing, called the US commitment to Israel’s security “sacrosanct”. When asked about the so-called BDS movement to boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements Blinken said on the record, he and Biden are “resolutely opposed” to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel because it “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries.”
  3. This week in a call with Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi Blinken and Ashkenazi discussed “expanding the circle of peace, the Iranian threat and other issues,” the Foreign Ministry said.
  4. Also this week Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a call to Israel’s Minister of Defense Benny Gantz emphasized the strength of the defense alliance between the US and Israel and expressed Washington’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. According to an Israeli Ministry of Defense statement, “Austin and Gantz said they had agreed to stay in close contact and arrange a meeting as soon as possible”.
  5. The head of the US military Central Command came to Israel this week, General Kenneth McKenzie flew to Israel for coordination meetings with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi. According to the IDF, “the focus of [McKenzie’s] visit is a strategic situational assessment with the chief of staff… alongside the advancement of regional partnerships against emerging threats.”
  6. Biden Administration’s United Nations representative designee Linda Thomas-Greenfield also spoke forcefully at her Senate confirmation hearing, “I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions proposed against Israel unfairly,” On the so-called Abraham Accords Thomas-Greenfield said, “I’m hopeful that those countries that have recognized Israel under the Abraham Accord will also see some opportunities to be more cooperative at the UN and more supportive of Israel’s presence there,” she says of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
  7. Meanwhile as the UN opened a Security Council debate “on the situation in the Middle East” Ambassador Richard Mills the acting American representative to the UN said in his official statement, “I must be clear, the U.S. will maintain its steadfast support for Israel. Under the Biden Administration, the United States will continue its longstanding policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel. The United States will also work to promote Israel’s standing and participation in United Nations bodies and other international organizations.”

As for President Biden himself his calls to world leaders followed a very traditional approach with calls to Canada and Mexico first, then leaders of NATO allies Great Britain, France, Germany then a call to Russian Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga followed by NATO Sec. General Jens Stoltenberg. No official presidential call to Bibi in sight or in the rear view.

Unlike the previous occupant of the Oval Office President Biden is acting like a seasoned veteran, which he is from over 40 years of hard-earned Washington experience, while surrounding himself with professionals. He knows Bibi is engaged in yet another election campaign and will exploit any publicity, as he has in the past for domestic political consumption.

President Biden also knows how to send all the right signals to Israel’s committed supporters at home and opponents abroad. He has empowered his foreign policy and national security team to do their jobs in alignment with decades of American policy.

Perhaps that first call to Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t take place until after the March 23rd Israeli election. In the meantime, there’s obviously no reason for Bibi to wait for his phone to ring.

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. after attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel, in 2019 he relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev. Ken currently resides in Herzliya. He writes about Israeli politics, relations with the U.S. and the Israeli creative class of writers and filmmakers.
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