On November 9, 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu called Donald Trump to offer congratulations and to celebrate Trump’s election the day before. The two discussed “regional issues,” and in the end the president-elect invited the prime minister to the White House. It was a good call.
As of Friday, a similar phone call has yet to take place between Netanyahu and the new president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden. This despite Biden having been announced on Saturday night as the winner, one who has already fielded phone calls from the leaders of France, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
But the leader of Israel – the country that claims to have an intimate and unparalleled special relationship with the US – has yet to make that call.
The reason is because of a fear. Not a fear that the call with Biden will not go well, but rather concern over the retribution Netanyahu could face from Trump, who still has 69 days left in office.
With Netanyahu likely on the verge of another election of his own in the coming weeks, the last thing he needs is Trump to be upset with him. If the president can fire his secretary of defense on Twitter – “Mark Esper has been terminated” – imagine what he can write about an Israeli politician whom he feels is no longer loyal.
This explains why Netanyahu waited 12 hours on Saturday night before tweeting congratulations to Biden, and when he finally did, refrained from calling him “president-elect” even though that was exactly what he called Trump in a similar tweet he put out four years ago.
This is all understandable. Netanyahu genuinely wanted to see Trump win the election, and Biden’s victory came as a blow to Netanyahu’s plans. It takes time to readjust. In addition, there are more than two months left to Trump’s term, and there are issues that still need to be managed, like Iran, an urgent challenge underscored by the visit to Israel this week of Elliott Abrams, the administration’s point man on the Islamic Republic.
At some point however, Netanyahu will have to hold that conversation with Biden, and will need to begin to acknowledge that the administration is changing. It will be complicated. Not because Biden is not pro-Israel – his track record over five decades in government proves he is – but rather because Israelis have forgotten what a non-Trump president looks like.
Whether it was Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama, every president opposed settlement activity and actively pushed for a two-state solution.
Some focused on it more, others less. Bush 43, a republican like Trump, is remembered as a great friend of Israel, even in right-wing circles. Did these people forget the Annapolis Conference, the Roadmap for peace, the letters he sent Ariel Sharon making a distinction between settlement blocs and the rest of the settlements?
The point is that opposition to settlements has always been US policy. The change came with Trump, the most unconventional of presidents, who took an alternative position on a complicated conflict.
He was the anomaly, not the new normal.