Biden makes first call to Netanyahu after delay

TEL AVIV/WASHINGTON • US President Joe Biden made a long-awaited first phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a delay that had led to Washington denying it was snubbing Israel’s leader.

There had been speculation that the Democratic President was signalling displeasure over Mr Netanyahu’s close ties with former president Donald Trump, who called the right-wing leader two days after his inauguration in 2017.

Mr Biden has spoken with about a dozen other world leaders since taking office on Jan 20. The White House had said that Mr Netanyahu, who differs with Mr Biden on some Middle East issues such as Iran, would be the first regional leader he would call.

The delay in the traditional courtesy call was also widely regarded by analysts as a sign that Mr Biden did not want to be seen boosting Mr Netanyahu ahead of Israel’s March 23 elections.

Some said it could foreshadow chillier relations if Mr Netanyahu wins re-election, but there were no immediate signs of tensions in relatively bland accounts of the call released by the two governments.

“It was a good conversation,” Mr Biden told reporters in the Oval Office, where he was meeting US labour leaders.

Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu spoke for about an hour on issues including the “Iranian threat” and Israel’s budding relations with Arab and Muslim countries, Mr Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “The two leaders noted their longstanding personal connection,” it said.

The White House said the leaders discussed, among other issues, the need for “continued close consultation” on Iran.

Mr Biden told Mr Netanyahu he intends to strengthen defence cooperation with Israel and stressed his support for normalisation of relations with its neighbours. He also “underscored the importance” of working towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the statement said.

The Israeli leader might find the two countries’ alliance tested if Washington restores US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, from which Mr Trump withdrew, and opposes Israeli settlement building on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood.