Barack Obama is a rookie. At least, this is what the Israeli prime minister seems to think. So far, Benjamin Netanyahu has been able to maximize his gains at the expense of the U.S. president and the Palestinians while solidifying his own position in the process.
Consider last month's trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. After months of tough and very public statements by top U.S. officials, Netanyahu was able to get the leader of the free world to concede on a settlement freeze and gave nothing in return. For Israeli hawks and their allies in the United States, this was a victory. But it did not come without costs, even leaving aside the effect on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's domestic popularity. Heads of state around the world paid attention, and surely some of them thought of Obama: This man is a pushover.
It would be a mistake to think that this was the first instance in which Netanyahu was able to manipulate a political situation in his favor. In fact, Netanyahu has been playing Obama and the Palestinians like a fiddle because he understands an important axiom of international relations: domestic politics matter.
After his election, Netanyahu formed an Israeli coalition opposed to a two-state solution and supporting the expansion of colonial settlements. This brought him into open confrontation with Obama, who said he did not recognize the legitimacy of further Israeli settlements.
At their spring meeting in Washington, it became clear that the two men were already at loggerheads. When Obama again pressed him on halting settlement expansion, Netanyahu diverted the discussion by highlighting the Iranian threat and Palestinian "incitement" against Israel.
Shortly thereafter, Obama met with Abbas and seems to have sent the Palestinian leader back to Ramallah with two contradictory messages. First, he must have impressed upon Abbas the need to quell the "incitement" that Netanyahu was talking about. Second, he must have urged Abbas to cooperate with U.S.-supported Egyptian efforts to broker reconciliation between rival factions Hamas and Abbas's Fatah.
When Abbas returned to Ramallah, his U.S.-supported security services stepped up a campaign of arrests of Hamas affiliates in the West Bank, while negotiators in Cairo attempted to bring the sides together. An agreement to end the stalemate that should have been signed in June has been delayed repeatedly.