Joe Biden speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu after being accused of snub

Joe Biden has spoken to Israel’s prime minister for the first time since becoming US president, ending a four-week silence that was interpreted as a deliberate snub by some allies of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The leaders, who have known each other for decades, spoke for about an hour on Wednesday, according to Netanyahu, who tweeted a smiling picture of himself on the phone in his office from his official Twitter account.

Netanyahu described the call as “friendly and warm” while Biden said it was a “good conversation”.

The talk came after Israel’s former UN ambassador Danny Danon last week urged Biden to call Netanyahu in a tweet that included a public telephone number for the US president to call. “Might it now be time to call the leader of Israel, the US’s closest ally?” Danon wrote at the time.

Some Middle East experts interpreted the fact that Biden did not call Netanyahu more quickly as a sign that the Israeli leader — who has been accused of aligning himself with Republicans — had fallen from grace after the White House changed hands.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the first leader that Biden would talk to in the Middle East would be Netanyahu. “Israel is, of course, an ally,” she said, adding the Biden team was already “fully engaged” with Israeli counterparts at lower levels.

The Biden White House is seeking the revitalisation of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu led a years’ long campaign against. His opposition to the deal — which included his addressing Congress in person — drew accusations from critics that he had interfered in domestic US politics.

Netanyahu personally helped convince Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal in 2018.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu on Wednesday said that he and Biden discussed the “future advancement” of the peace accords between Israel and Arab countries that were brokered under the Trump White House, as well as the threat from Iran and regional challenges.

The spokesperson added that Biden had commended Netanyahu on his leadership in the fight against the coronavirus and said the pair exchanged ideas on ways to deal with the pandemic.

Israel has been quick to roll out a mass vaccination campaign to older citizens, which appears to have led to a steep drop in cases and hospital admissions among those who have received doses. 

Netanyahu faces a tough re-election campaign in March without the pomp and ceremony of regular visits from US officials to highlight his ties with Washington.

But Biden and Netanyahu also count on a longstanding personal connection that both have played on even during tense times. When he was US vice-president to Barack Obama, Biden once asked Israel’s ambassador to pass on a message to Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.”

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv

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