Obama Goes Back to Benign Neglect

After peace talks meltdown, it will be some time before U.S. steps back into Mideast quagmire.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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President Barack Obama as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., April 2, 2014.
President Barack Obama as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., April 2, 2014.Credit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

In December 2012, a month after Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential elections, columnist Peter Beinart published an article on the news and opinion website The Daily Beast entitled “Why Barack Obama will ignore Israel.” Beinart wrote at the time that during Obama’s second term, he did not intend to clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue, but would stand aside and allow the rest of the world, especially the European Union, to ratchet up the pressure on the Israeli PM.

Beinart quoted senior White House officials, who called Obama’s policy toward the peace process “benign neglect.” Those same senior officials said at the time that Netanyahu wanted only to present a pseudo-peace process so as to deflect international pressure; therefore, renewing talks would only help him do so. They explained that only when Netanyahu feels the pressure of isolation very directly will there be any chance that he will change direction and agree to make the tough decisions needed.

But four days after Beinart’s article came out, then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice had to withdraw her candidacy for secretary of state over an interview she gave about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Two weeks later, Obama appointed John Kerry to the post and Rice had to make do with the position of national security adviser.

Kerry did not intend for one minute to adopt a policy of “benign neglect.” On the contrary, he told Obama that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was the “granddaddy of all conflicts” and that he wanted to lead a renewed American initiative to try to solve it.

Obama, though doubtful, gave Kerry the green light to try. If he failed, he would be one more U.S. secretary of state who crashed into the ground of reality in the Middle East. If he managed to bring about a historic breakthrough, it would never be too late for Obama to jump on the peace bandwagon.

A year on, at the press conference in Morocco last Friday, Kerry looked bruised, tired and frustrated. Despite his almost inhuman efforts, it looked like Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had managed with their recalcitrance to beat even Kerry. The secretary has no choice but to prepare to raise the white flag.

When Kerry meets Obama at the White House this week – if no miracle happens over the next few days to save the peace process – the American president will invoke the original December 2012 program of “benign neglect.”

Kerry, special envoy Martin Indyk and senior officials in Israel would be glad to see the Americans make one last effort to present their own peace plan. But no one in Obama’s inner circle has the appetite for it. As things look now, it is much more likely that Obama will shut down Kerry’s efforts than direct him to invest more efforts in it. If the United States comes back to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire and tries to present a new peace plan, it will not be for the next few months.

If the Americans really do leave the peace process, this neglect will not be benign at all for Israel. As opposed to what Netanyahu and senior members of his government are trying to market for domestic consumption, no one else in the world – except perhaps Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – is going to blame the Palestinians.

Although publicly the United States is dividing responsibility for the meltdown of the talks equally between Israel and the Palestinians, in private the Americans are blaming mainly Netanyahu. If that’s what the Americans think, it’s easy to judge the mood in Europe. The implications for Israel could be disastrous.

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