Why Obama Will Ignore Israel

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Beinart

The administration's new Mideast strategy: benign neglect.

The last week of November 2012 was a big one on the Israeli-Palestinian front. On the 65th anniversary of the partition resolution that created a Jewish state, the United Nations recognized a Palestinian one. Israel retaliated with the West Bank equivalent of sequestration: announcing it would move toward building settlements in an area east of Jerusalem called E1, which many observers believe would kill the two-state solution. European governments responded by threatening to withdraw their ambassadors.

And the United States? It mostly watched. In 2011, when the Palestinians first sought a U.N. status upgrade, the Obama diplomatic corps lobbied so hard against it that one State Department official joked that "sometimes I feel like I work for the Israeli government." This time, by contrast, the U.S. largely went through the motions. It was "half-assed," observes a Middle East insider close to the administration. "They didn't really lobby hard ... [The attitude was] if Israel ends up with a big embarrassment, who gives a s--t."

Then, when Israel responded by going nuclear on settlements and the Europeans responded with fury, the administration was similarly passive. Contrary to reports in the Israeli press, Team Obama didn't mastermind the angry European response. But neither did they tamp it down. Even though E1 has long been an American red line. And even though the Israelis alerted the White House mere hours before they announced the decision, the Obama administration's response was pro forma and bland. Publicly, Obama himself said nothing. It was the first sign of what senior administration officials predict may be a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Obama's second term: benign neglect.

Consider the view from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the one hand, Benjamin Netanyahu keeps doing things--like expanding settlements and refusing to accept the 1967 lines as the parameters for peace talks--that U.S. officials consider bad for America and catastrophic for Israel. On the other, every time President Obama has tried to make Netanyahu change course--in 2009 when he demanded a settlement freeze and in 2011 when he set parameters for peace talks--the White House has been politically clobbered. Administration officials might like to orchestrate Netanyahu's defeat in next month's Israeli elections, as Bill Clinton did when he sent political consultants to convince Israelis to replace Netanyahu with Ehud Barak in 1999. But they can't because Netanyahu has no serious rivals for power. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert isn't running; the centrist party he once led, Kadima, has largely collapsed, and the head of the center-left Labor Party is advertising her willingness to be a junior partner in another Netanyahu government.

So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. "The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel]," notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America's "standing back" is actually "doing something."

Administration officials are quick to note that this new approach does not mean America won't help protect Israel militarily through anti-missile defense systems like the much-heralded Iron Dome. …