Last month, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office and spoke before a joint session of Congress. But Herzog’s speech about the vitality of the U.S.-Israel relationship unintentionally highlighted that the leader of the Israeli government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has not met with Biden since taking office in December 2022.
Adversaries probably perceive the absence of a Biden-Netanyahu meeting as a sign of a weakening U.S.-Israel relationship. It is therefore crucial for Biden to meet with Netanyahu soon at the White House and publicly signal plans for closer cooperation against shared threats from Iran and China.
Netanyahu has said that Biden invited him to a White House meeting, but he claims the Biden administration has been noncommittal about the details. Netanyahu specified that the meeting might take place in September, but Biden administration officials would only confirm the two recently agreed to meet in the United States later this year and that “the details will be worked out by our teams to see what is feasible.” The September timeframe and ambiguous location of the meeting suggest it might occur on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly — an inauspicious venue to meet with a close U.S. partner.
While Biden has a long record of support for Israel and a history of interacting with Netanyahu, tensions between the two leaders have recently intensified over the Israeli government’s efforts to reform its judicial system and the Biden administration’s criticism of those plans. Biden has expressed hope that Netanyahu will “[walk] away from” judicial reform amid worries that it will weaken Israel’s democracy. In July, he referred to members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet as “the most extremist” he has seen. The Biden administration has not taken an evenhanded approach with its foreign partners, though. It invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a state visit in June despite widespread concerns about democratic backsliding and infringement of human rights in India.
Whatever disagreements may exist over this internal Israeli issue, Biden’s delay in meeting with Netanyahu undermines the historical record of meetings between the American president and Israeli prime minister. The last 10 Israeli prime ministers waited an average of 64 days after taking office to meet with the U.S. president. Netanyahu’s current term is more than 200 days old.
Israel and America’s Fundamental Interests
Biden’s avoidance of Netanyahu has also fueled growing calls for the United States to distance itself from Israel, including a U.S. congressperson’s recent derogation of Israel as a “racist state” and a New York Times columnist’s endorsement of a “reassessment” of the U.S.-Israel diplomatic relationship.
Meanwhile, China, the United States’ chief global rival, has taken advantage of these trends by extending its own invitation for Netanyahu to visit Beijing. Growing relations between Israel and China, amid the public discord between Biden and Netanyahu, undermine U.S. regional interests and Israeli security. Beijing’s substantial investments in Israeli infrastructure projects, including railways and ports, present a significant risk of espionage, intellectual property theft, and illegal information transfer to Iran, a partner of Beijing and adversary of the United States and Israel. Despite positive steps the Israeli government has taken to review foreign direct investment, the absence of a Biden-Netanyahu meeting hinders progress toward expanding protections against malign Chinese engagement, and toward developing alternatives so that Israel can turn aside high-risk investments.
Iran, meanwhile, is marching towards nuclear weapons capability and bolstering its terrorist proxies. Tehran has now enriched uranium to 84 percent, the highest level it has ever reached and not far shy of 90 percent weapons-grade enrichment. Although Iran-backed groups have attacked U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq and Syria nearly 90 times since Biden took office, the administration has only targeted Iranian proxies on four occasions. This lack of engagement further encourages Tehran to take increasingly aggressive measures against the United States and its regional partners.
Political Differences Shouldn’t Matter
Tensions between Biden and Netanyahu drag down efforts to address shared U.S.-Israeli interests to blunt malign Chinese engagement and Iranian aggression. To rectify this, Biden should clarify that he has invited Netanyahu to the White House, hold that meeting as soon as possible, and publicly reaffirm his commitment to providing Israel with the necessary capabilities to maximize its freedom of action against Iran. JINSA recently recommended just as much in a report about U.S. strategy in the event that Israel attacks Iran.
Biden and Netanyahu also should discuss strategies for increasing U.S. investment in Israel’s high-tech sector to compensate for any economic losses that might accrue from countering Beijing’s risk-laden investments.
Some strategic interests are too important to risk imperiling because of political differences. The administration should focus less on unnecessarily alienating Israel and more on shoring up cooperation to combat common challenges. Otherwise, the United States’ and Israel’s adversaries will continue to see weakness.
Zac Schildcrout is a Policy Analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally published in 19FortyFive.