Photo: Reuters, Flash90

Back to Basics for Biden’s Buddy

Remote Learning of Washington’s Diplomacy 101

By Amir Oren

Joseph R. Biden and Binyamin Netanyahu have been on Joe-and-Bibi terms for almost four decades now, first knowing each other in Washington as 30-something ambitious budding national leaders as U.S. Senator and Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, respectively. Coming back from periods of failure and patient waiting for their turn, they each reached the top spot on their totem poles.

But by now, the warmth has gone out of their relationship. When Biden was Barack Obama’s Vice President, Netanyahu – back as Prime Minister after a 10-year hiatus – undercut his visit to Jerusalem by choosing this time and place to announce yet another settlement initiative east of the 1949-67 Armistice Line. Biden was, well, biding his time. Now the tables have been turned. A new President, with a whole term ahead of him plus a control of Congress, facing a visibly weakened Netanyahu, his buddy no longer.

Six weeks before the elections which might put an end to his political career, Netanyahu has a lot on his plate. His corruption trial resumed in Jerusalem District Court, seemingly beyond the point of no return and focusing attention on his awkward status as both the country’s leading office-holder and its premier criminal defendant. The COVID-19 crisis is far from over, denying him the credit he claims for his efforts to buy millions of vaccines for Israel’s population. One reason for this mess is that the cabinet he has headed for the last nine months is deadlocked by design, due to a MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – mechanism he set up with his “Alternate” rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.

It would have certainly helped Netanyahu if he could show his edge over the contenders to his title by playing statesman, on the regional (Morocco, Dubai) stage or the global one, the way he did by going to Washington and Moscow in prior election campaigns over the last two years. This, it turns out, is politically, diplomatically and Corona-lly difficult to arrange, and plans for flights were re-arranged and eventually cancelled. Flying out and into Ben-Gurion Airport would also be an embarrassing reminder of Netanyahu’s tardiness in closing this port of entry to the virus and its variants.

In the age of Video Conferencing, FaceTime (Turkey’s Erdogan and the 2016 coup), Skype and Zoom a substitute to an in-person meeting could have easily been found, later to be used in a split-screen clip. But this, too, was not in the cards as Biden settled into the White House.

Traditionally, Presidents start their engagements with foreign leaders by meeting their Mexicanadian neighbors. They proceed to host or visit overseas allied counterparts. The least they can do, or the most under COVID, is chat with them on the phone. One may call it a Covideo Conference.

This is indeed what Biden has done, and in his maiden foreign policy speech (“America is back”) at the State Department February 4 he ticked of the names of nations whose elected officials he called the world over. Conspicuously absent from the list: Israel. Three weeks after his inauguration, three months after his election, Biden has not seen fit to get back to Netanyahu, who took his sweet time conceding that Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election.

Netanyahu is now paying not only for that and for the settlement slight to Biden a decade ago. He is obviously being punished for his unprecedented and much resented foray into the American political scene by inviting himself in 2015 to Capitol Hill to argure in Congress against the Iran policy of the Obama-Biden Administration. This sin would not have been forgiven had Hillary Clinton won the next year. The payday was only delayed by the Democrats being the party out of power for the next four years. Memories are long and forgiveness is rare.

A President is all-powerful (at least in the Executive Branch) during his term but completely disappeares into the sunset when his final Air Force One flight lands. He is not the leader of the Opposition in British Parliamentary fashion – a Churchill losing to an Attlee and staying on until the next election he manages to win. This is even more so in Trump’s case, because of the unique circumstances of his leaving office in disgrace and impeachment, along with his eligibility to fight for nomination and election in 2024. Trump’s hold over the Republican Party, especially in the House of Representatives whose members face Primaries and general elections every two years, is still strong. But for Netanyahu, who allied himself with Gingrich against Clinton in the 90’s and with Trump against the Democrats for the last four years, challenging Biden by looking for political cover from Trump or Congressional Republicans would be the height of folly.

For Biden, there is style and there is substance. Style has primarily to do with management. At 78, Biden does not project an abundance of energy, conserving it to command decisions and letting experienced subordinates take care of the details and the staff work. He is not Jimmy Carter consumed by micromanaging the White House Tennis Court schedule. (Carter protested this image, saying he needed this timetable to know the whereabouts of his aides).

Much like Dwight Eisenhower, who at 62 was considered old for his time when he won in 1952, Biden appointed an able and seasoned diplomat – Ike had John Foster Dulles – to run foreign policy out of the State Department, with the National Security Council and the Defense Department in secondary roles. Eisenhower, a retired Army General himself, had no need for a military officer in charge of the Pentagon he intended to downsize. Biden apparently does, choosing Lloyd Austin precisely because he would not be an innocent civilian among the warriors fighting for the Defense budget, in addition to accepting Tony Blinken as first among equals due to diplomacy’s primacy for the President.

Style also has to do with speech. There was a huge gap between what Biden was reported to have said in a pre-recorded CNBC interview and what actually transpired in the give-and-take. “Biden refuses to remove sanctions until Iran goes back to limiting Uranium enrichment” was the headline shot around the world and eliciting gleeful reactions out of Jerusalem. But when the exchange was actually shown, it delivered less than advertised. The sanctions removal question was answered by a single syllable, No, bringing to mind Marcel Marceau in the only word spoken in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie”, or the curt negative reply to Inspector Clouseau’s query to a hotel patron standing next to a menacing dog (“Does your dog bite?” “No”).

In both cases, No was not such a simple statement. With Marceau, the callers to Paris, headed by Brooks, did not “speak French”, and when Clouseau was bitten as he feared and felt deceived by the reassuring “No”, he was told, “It’s not my dog”. Biden, when asked whether the enrichment limits should resume prior to sanctions removal, said even less than No or Yes. He merely mumbled and nodded. Of course, by turning the negative into positive, the same condition would apply, but in a hopeful rather than ominous vein. The interpretation in the headline was thus technically correct, but it could not be described as policy. It would be left to Blinken and his deputies, along with Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, to come up with options for Biden’s decisions.

Substance-wise, Biden has indicated that as far as he can influence the agenda – he obviously does not control other actors – his priorities are nowhere near Tehran and Jerusalem. The pandemic, the economy, equal justice for minorities, Trump’s impeachment are all urgent issues. Next, when he and Blinken list their global concerns, China and Russia are at the top, and with – or against – them the alliances, NATO in Europe and The Quad of India, Japan and Australia along with the U.S. in Asia.

The Middle East is still around, but less so. The festering problems of Syria and Iraq, Libya and Lebanon and a mutant ISIS have not disappeared. Neither can the explosive issues of Iran’s nuclear project and Israel-Palestine be put off for long. But six weeks until the Knesset elections and budding diplomacy with Supreme Leader Khamenei, who will have to authorize any contact between Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Blinken or Malley are not too long to wait.

Biden will definitely be there. Who is going to be his Israeli interlocutor remains to be decided by millions of voters and several party chiefs. Whoever is going to be on first-name basis with Joe, whether it is Bibi or any of his rivals, such as Gideon or Yair or Naftali, or perhaps some rotational arrangement between them, they are all being taught a lesson by the new administration, an orientation of sort, no Oriental pun intended.

When Eisenhower presided over America and the West, the distance between himself and newly-established Israel’s leader was enormous. David Ben Gurion, a self-described “merely the Prime Minister of a small country”, told his cabinet that his own counterpart is not the President, but rather the Secretary of State, namely Dulles. Under Biden, Israel’s Prime Minister, whoever he turns out to be in six weeks or somewhat later, may revert to conducting his business regarding Natanz or Ramallah, Beirut or Gaza, with a level below the President whose authority is saved for the more momentous decisions.