Biden and Netanyahu talk Iran, U.S.-Israel alliance

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President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday for the first time since taking office, speaking about Iran and strengthening the U.S.-Israeli relationship, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s media adviser.

The two leaders were described as speaking for about an hour and having a “very warm and friendly” call, touching on their personal ties and saying they’d work together to “continue strengthening the steadfast alliance” between the two countries.

“Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the future advancement of the peace accords, the Iranian threat and regional challenges, and agreed to continue their dialogue,” according to the statement. “Biden commended Prime Minister Netanyahu on his leadership in the fight against the coronavirus; the two exchanged ideas on ways to deal with the pandemic.”

Biden told reporters that he had a “good conversation“ with Netanyahu but didn’t say more, according to a press pool report from the Oval Office.

Netanyahu is the first Middle East leader Biden has called in office, leading some in Israel to think Biden’s move not to call Netanyahu until now was a snub. Netanyahu was one of former President Donald Trump’s closest international allies. Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the lack of a call until now wasn’t an “intentional diss.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is someone the president has known for some time,” she said. “Obviously, we have a long and important relationship with Israel, and the president has known him and has been working on a range of issues that there’s a mutual commitment to for some time. It is just a reflection of the fact that we have been here for three and a half weeks, he’s not called every single global leader yet, and he is eager to do that in the weeks ahead.”

Israel and some Gulf Arab countries opposing the Iran nuclear deal have called for Biden to give them more say in future talks with Iran. Ambassadors of some of those countries have argued they have more at risk than the U.S. or other nations involved in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump left in 2018, a move that Israel supported. Biden and his aides have looked to bring that deal back.

Biden is facing several questions in the region, including whether to lift Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran‘s central bank and on Iranians who tried to meddle in the 2020 elections. Iran has called on the U.S. to lift sanctions before trying to revive a deal.

Netanyahu and former President Barack Obama — whom Biden served under as vice president — had a tense relationship. Nethanyahu accused Obama of carrying “out a shameful anti-Israel ploy” at the United Nations in 2016 in light of the U.S. abstaining on a UN Security Council resolution that criticized Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian-claimed land.

Biden had a “warm conversation” with Netanyahu in November in which the Israeli recognized the president-elect’s victory. Biden “reiterated his deep commitment to the State of Israel and its security” in that call, and Netanyahu described a “special bond” between the U.S. and Israel as a “fundamental component of Israel’s security and its policy,” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s media adviser.

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