White House denies Biden is snubbing Israel's Netanyahu

The lack of direct contact between US President Joe Biden and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has fuelled speculation in Israel and among Middle East experts. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The White House on Friday (Feb 12) denied that US President Joe Biden was intentionally snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by failing to include him so far in an early round of phone calls to foreign leaders since taking office on Jan 20.

The lack of direct contact between the Democratic president and the long-serving right-wing premier has fuelled speculation in Israel and among Middle East experts that the new administration may be signalling its displeasure over the close ties Mr Netanyahu forged with Mr Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

"He is looking forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a daily briefing when asked when Mr Biden would call. "I can assure you that will be soon, but I don't have a specific time or deadline."

Asked if the delay in a Biden courtesy call was meant to disrespect the Israeli leader, Ms Psaki said: "It is not an intentional dis. Prime Minister Netanyahu is someone the president has known for some time."

Mr Biden, she said, was "looking forward to having the conversation."

Israel is one of Washington's closest allies. Mr Trump and his predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, under whom Mr Biden served as vice-president, both spoke to Mr Netanyahu within days of taking office.

Mr Biden has already made calls to a number of foreign leaders, including those from China, Mexico, Britain, India, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Mr Netanyahu has himself downplayed the notion that he was being slighted.

While Mr Netanyahu was almost in lock-step with Mr Trump over Middle East policy, he could be in for frostier relations with Mr Biden. Mr Biden has long been regarded in Israel as a friend in Washington but he and Mr Netanyahu have sometimes not seen eye-to-eye.

Mr Netanyahu will be challenged if Mr Biden restores US participation in the Iran nuclear deal that Mr Trump withdrew from, improves Washington's tattered relations with the Palestinians as he has promised, and opposes Israeli settlement building on of occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood.

Mr Netanyahu used his bond with Mr Trump in recent elections to tout his ability to keep the United States aligned with his policies. But with Israel's fourth election in two years scheduled for March 23, he may not have that political luxury anymore.

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