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.