WASHINGTON — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was coming to Washington seven weeks before Election Day, top aides to former Vice President Joe Biden had to decide whether they should make an exception to one of their cardinal rules.

The Biden campaign had implemented a strict policy prohibiting campaign staff from communicating with foreign officials and diplomats, eager to avoid a repeat of the fallout from the 2016 election that has haunted President Donald Trump ever since.

But with Netanyahu — a prominent allied leader — coming to sign a landmark peace agreement brokered by their Republican rival at the White House, the Biden campaign internally debated whether it would take his call or meeting if one was requested by Israeli officials.

No such request ever came, leaving Biden and his aides off the hook. But their uncertainty over how to handle it underscored just how sensitive the Biden team has grown to the prospect of foreign contact over the course of the presidential race.

Now with the Democratic nominee leading in national and battleground state polls heading into the Nov. 3 election, foreign diplomats are looking for channels into Biden's foreign policy team, anxious to prepare for a potential transition.

In past election cycles, it was common for foreign policy advisers of a presidential candidate to have lines of communication with allied governments that allowed them to build relationships early and share their policy plans.

The Biden rule has made that more difficult, according to multiple diplomats from European, Latin American and Middle Eastern nations who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the matter.

"Normally we would just reach out for insight, what we should be watching — lately the tone has been hesitance," one European diplomat told McClatchy. "But D.C. is a big city with a lot of contacts. Everyone kind of knows each other. So it's a dynamic we work within."

A second senior European official said it was part of their normal course of preparation to reach out to both campaigns, building contacts to better understand the direction the candidates might take U.S. policy.

Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state and a senior foreign policy adviser to Biden, told McClatchy the strict policy was implemented "because of this poisonous environment created by the president, and so that there is no confusion as to whether or not we are inviting any assistance from foreign governments."

Dozens of contacts between Trump campaign associates and foreign officials throughout the 2016 race drew scrutiny from law enforcement and anti-corruption watchdogs, including communication between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials that led to a two-year special counsel investigation.

"Our campaign has refrained from engaging in substantive conversations with foreign government officials, and would only do so under conditions that ensure transparency," Blinken said.

But in the absence of even informal discussions directly with Biden's close advisers, foreign diplomats are resorting to secondary channels.

One diplomat mentioned Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close ally of Biden, who also had been a Delaware senator and committee chairman, as a liaison between foreign officials and the Biden orbit.

The senator's interactions with foreign officials were not related to Biden's campaign, an aide said.

"Senator Coons meets with foreign ambassadors in Washington, D.C., regularly as part of his duties as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee," said Madeline Broas, Coons' press secretary.

While top Democrats like Coons have been accessible to explain the thinking of Biden's foreign policy team, foreign officials say they would still prefer the opportunity to have direct informal contact with the team itself.

"We asked who to call on Nov. 4 if he wins, and even that they preferred not discuss," said one Mideast diplomat.

A British diplomat confirmed that the Biden campaign had not communicated with them and, from their understanding, had not been in contact with any of their European counterparts.

"At the working level, the Biden campaign does not work with the Embassy, and we do have political teams that they don't communicate with," said the British diplomat. "We're waiting to see how the election results play out before any formal contact is made."

Even as foreign officials express some frustration with their difficulty planning for a potential Biden presidency, they all note that Biden is a known leader overseas — both from his time as vice president and his tenure as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And many of his most senior foreign policy advisers throughout the campaign are veteran diplomats, including Blinken; Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy; and Tom Donilon, former national security adviser during the Obama administration, among others.

"I think that foreign officials in every capital in the world have a really good sense of what they'll be getting in a Biden administration," said Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida. "It's no secret who's been involved in the campaign, and I'm quite certain that the relationships that exist, the deep relationships that exist with Joe Biden, absolutely carry down to really meaningful relationships that Joe Biden's experienced foreign policy team has worked to build as well."

"Importantly, that applies to both allies and adversaries," Deutch added, "and with a Biden administration, there will be no confusing which is which."

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(c)2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

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