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. And they add that the U.S. will strongly resist any Palestinian effort to use its newfound U.N. status to bring lawsuits against Israel at the International Criminal Court. America will also try to prevent further spasms of violence: by maintaining the funding that keeps Mahmoud Abbas afloat in the West Bank and by working with Egypt to restrain Hamas.
What America won’t do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.
To some outside observers, it all sounds too clever by half. Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, notes that as long as the administration still protects Israel from prosecution at the International Criminal Court, Netanyahu won’t suffer enough internationally to reconsider his ways. Others are harsher, suggesting that behind the administration’s supposed strategic jujitsu lies cowardice: a fear of confronting Netanyahu and his American allies. One problem with outsourcing the job of pressuring Israel to Europe, they note, is that since many Israelis already doubt Europe’s affection for the Jewish state, that pressure may not hurt Netanyahu domestically. It could even strengthen him.
If the administration’s new Israel approach sounds familiar, it’s because it fits the broader Obama strategy of “leading from behind.” Critics mock the phrase as reflecting an abrogation of American leadership, but what it really reflects is an understanding that the unipolar world of the 1990s is gone, and America must adjust. Nowhere is this truer than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For years, other powers let the U.S. control the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because they believed that only America, with its unique relationship to Israel, could broker a deal. But the Obama administration’s failure to restart serious talks has gravely undermined that conceit. And partly as a result, other players, both in Europe and the Middle East, no longer defer to Washington in the same way.
Rather than reversing that phenomenon, Team Obama is trying to make it a strength. It’s hoping that when faced with international isolation, Netanyahu will shift course and embrace the kind of Palestinian state supported by his predecessor, Olmert. But that may be a bad bet. Israeli politics have swung so far right that some of Netanyahu’s strongest rivals are now ultra-hawks who consider him too soft. In that environment, resisting global pressure by pushing forward with settlement growth may actually help him in the polls.
Team Obama had better hope its hands-off strategy for saving the two-state solution works. Because at this rate, by the time they’re ready to try something else, it will be too late.