President Joe Biden called to congratulate incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, as the veteran politician begins talks to form a new right-wing coalition government expected to be at odds with the Biden administration on a range of issues.
Biden spoke with Netanyahu to "congratulate him on his party’s victory and commend Israel’s free and fair elections," according to a White House statement.
"The President reaffirmed the strength of the US-Israel bilateral partnership, based on a bedrock of shared democratic values and mutual interests, and underscored his unwavering support for Israel’s security," the statement said.
Netanyahu is set to reclaim power after his conservative Likud Party and its political allies won a comfortable 64-seat Knesset majority in the Nov. 1 elections, the country’s fifth in four years.
His political comeback ousts the coalition led by centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who conceded defeat on Nov. 3. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, is expected to soon formally ask Netanyahu to form a government, which would likely include the hard-line Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties.
Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister before a diverse coalition led by Lapid unseated him in June 2021. The 73-year-old's dramatic return to the premiership is likely to move Israeli politics further to the right, complicating relations with the current Democratic administration as it seeks to re-enter a nuclear deal with Iran and de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a tweet Monday, Netanyahu said he thanked Biden during their call for a “40-year-long personal friendship and for his commitment to the state of Israel.”
“I told him that we have the ability to reach more peace agreements and also to confront Iranian aggression,” Netanyahu added.
Netanyahu enjoyed a warm personal relationship with former President Donald Trump, whose administration moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and mediated the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states. Biden has taken a more traditional US approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but has left many Trump-era decisions in place.
He and Netanyahu have a cordial, if complicated, relationship going back decades to when Biden was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Netanyahu was an Israeli diplomat in Washington.
In 2014, Biden recalled once signing a photo for Netanyahu with the inscription, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” The two held what Netanyahu described as a “warm, excellent meeting” when Biden visited Israel in July.
Their relationship, however, has been strained by disagreements over a number of issues, including the landmark nuclear deal that Biden hoped to salvage before anti-government protests across Iran derailed those efforts. Netanyahu rallied opposition against the original nuclear agreement when Biden was vice president in 2015 and has remained a staunch critic of attempts to revive it.
Of likely concern to US officials is the composition of the Netanyahu-led governing bloc, which analysts project will be the most right-wing in Israel’s history. Israeli media reported that the Biden administration will not engage with Jewish nationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir should Netanyahu name him as a minister. The far-right politician, who has proposed deporting “disloyal” Israeli Arabs, is seeking the position of public security minister.
On Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price would not say whether the Biden administration was concerned by the politics of the incoming Israeli government, but said that the “rock solid partnership with Israel is based on mutual interests and shared values.” Price declined to speculate when asked whether the administration would deal directly with Ben-Gvir.