‘Benign neglect’: Obama’s new Israel approach?


This past September, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama stressed America’s commitment to work toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. "Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties, America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey," he said.

Well, according to journalist Peter Beinart, the Obama administration has concluded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not prepared to make that journey.

Beinart writes that the Obama administration did not exert itself to line up votes agains the latest Palestinian U.N. push, and it didn’t make much noise in criticizing Israel’s recent announcements regarding building plans in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. That’s because, Beinart writes, the administration has decided to pursue a new strategy toward Israel, one of "benign neglect."

Beinart explains:


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.

Separately, Beinart bats down a rumor that President Obama is planning an Israel trip.

A few days ago, I looked at Netanyahu’s apparent isolation among Western leaders.

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