The U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister have both talked, a lot, about how long they’ve known each other: “many, many years,” “a good many years,” “more than 30 years,” “for over 40 years.”
So an awkward question has loomed over the first year both have held their country’s top job: When will they get together?
Almost 11 months after the election that brought Bibi Netanyahu back for a record sixth term as prime minister, President Biden has held back the customary honor of an invitation to the White House, or any other one-on-one get-together.
That break with tradition, much discussed in Israel as a snub, will be partially resolved Wednesday when the two leaders are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly.
But there is still no coveted White House invite on the horizon. If there isn’t one by the end of December, Netanyahu would become the first incoming Israeli premier not to get a White House visit in the first year of a term going back to Golda Meir’s state dinner with Richard M. Nixon in 1969. (At the start of his second term, Yitzhak Rabin met President George H.W. Bush at his summer retreat in Kennebunkport.)
“It is humiliating but better than nothing,” Gideon Rahat, head of Hebrew University’s Political Science Department and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said of Netanyahu’s planned sit-down with Biden at a hotel 230 miles from the Oval Office. “Netanyahu sees himself as a world leader and probably doesn’t understand how Biden can treat him like this.”
Whatever the president personally thinks of Netanyahu, with their ties dating back to Reagan-era Washington, he has made no secret of his discomfort with the current Israeli government.
Biden described some of the prime minister’s coalition partners – including right-wing nationalists pushing for wholesale annexation of the West Bank – as some “of the most extreme members of cabinets that I have seen.”
And Netanyahu has brushed aside Biden’s appeals for him to “walk away” from his government’s plans to remake the country’s judiciary, which have sparked months of mass protests, strikes and discord in the military.
Asked by reporters in March whether Netanyahu could expect the White House invitation, Biden said: “Not in the near term.”
Amid the public protests – and near nightly West Bank military raids that have made this the deadliest year for Palestinians in decades – some congressional Democrats have called for Washington to put more pressure on Israel.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been eager to present themselves as Israel’s most unwavering supporters. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in March invited Netanyahu to skip the White House and come right to Capitol Hill.
In the middle is Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel throughout his political life, fond of saying “you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
And while Biden has not extended his characteristic warmth to Netanyahu, he has given no sign that he’s ready to get tough with him, especially as Washington tries to broker a strategic rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Instead, the president has signaled his displeasure by denying Netanyahu the longed-for Oval Office photo. Forcing the prime minister to settle for an hour of face time in southeast Manhattan is another slight, many in Israel say.
“I would describe the last 10 months as passive aggressive,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations. “Biden has concluded that you can’t live with Netanyahu and you can’t live without him.”
According to Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, U.N. side meetings have been some of the most productive sessions Netanyahu has had with his American counterparts, including one with President Barack Obama.
“You’re free of all the pomp and circumstance,” Oren said. “You actually have a business meeting.”
But the prime minister, a careful manager of political optics, is unlikely to be satisfied with New York, he said.
“Netanyahu likes the pomp and circumstance. He likes staying at the Blair House,” Oren said, referring to the White House guest residence.
Netanyahu is not alone. Every Israeli premier wants to be seen side by side with the leader of Israel’s most important ally. “What is the White House thinking?” is a fixture of political discourse here. “How is the ‘special relationship?'”
“I tell my students that the president is as important to us as to the people of the United States and maybe we should get a vote,” said Rahat.
Some coalition members have chafed at the need to placate Washington. “President Biden needs to realize that we are no longer a star on the American flag,” Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a leader of Israel’s far-right religious nationalist movement, said in July on X, formerly known as Twitter.
But the sheen of presidential approval may be even more especially important to Netanyahu, who presents himself as “a kind of super leader and puts all the focus on himself,” Rahat said.
Netanyahu has touted his skills as a president whisperer during all of his recent election campaigns, and he boasts a record of White House visits few foreign leaders can match. The prime minister visited presidents Bill Clinton (three weeks after starting his first term as premier), Obama (seven weeks into his second) and Donald Trump (four weeks after Trump took office), returning so often that Trump eventually gave him an honorary key to the White House.
When Democrat Biden won the presidential election, Netanyahu assured Israelis that their long friendship would transcend his increasingly close association with U.S. Republicans.
But the chill was obvious from the start. When Netanyahu was elected, Biden didn’t place a courtesy call for more than three weeks, which was its own minor scandal in Israel.
During his 18 months out of power, Netanyahu watched from the sidelines as Biden welcomed Naftali Bennett to the Oval Office (11 weeks after Bennett became prime minister in 2021). It was Yair Lapid, a caretaker prime minister, waiting at the bottom of the Air Force One stairs for Biden on his first presidential visit to Israel a year later.
Then it was Israeli President Isaac Herzog – a largely ceremonial figure – who visited the White House in July to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, more than six months after Netanyahu returned as premier.
“It is an embarrassment to Netanyahu’s honor to beg for a meeting,” an unnamed member of Netanyahu’s Likud party complained to Israeli media.
In all of those meetings, Biden said much about his “unbreakable” commitment to Israel. But nothing about a visit from his old friend.
“Biden is in love with Israel,” said Miller. “But he’s not in love with Netanyahu.”
(c) 2023, The Washington Post · Steve Hendrix