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.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu was taking a page from the playbook of colonialists of old by seeking to divide and rule. Once Abbas was done flexing muscle in the West Bank and some Hamas affiliates were released from Palestinian Authority prisons, it was time once again to tip the scales, this time in Hamas’s favor.
Not only did Netanyahu get Obama to back down on a settlement freeze as a precondition to talks, but he also got Abbas to agree to quash the Goldstone report that alleged war crimes against Israel for its attacks on Gaza.
Why would Netanyahu care whether such a report moved forward in the U.N. system? Israel has never paid attention to the United Nations, and any meaningful condemnation of Israel in the international organization has consistently met a U.S. veto.
Netanyahu knew that if Abbas’s representative in Geneva didn’t put forward the Goldstone report, this decision could be exploited to expand the gap between Hamas and Fatah at a critical juncture. He is well aware of each Palestinian party’s distrust for the other and of their ongoing struggle to solidify their positions as rulers of their respective fiefdoms in the West Bank and Gaza.
At the same time, in an unprecedented move, Netanyahu approved the release of 20 female Palestinian political prisoners in exchange for a videotape of one captured Israeli soldier. It may have seemed like a lousy deal, but not if you understand Netanyahu’s intention: strengthening Hamas’s hand against Fatah.
Indeed, Netanyahu has successfully played Fatah against Hamas, and vice versa, over the past few months, all while knowing that his U.S. counterpart is far too consumed with domestic politics to get involved in the Palestinian question beyond a photo opportunity.
Meanwhile, he has been able to hold together his right-wing coalition and keep his constituency happy by delaying meaningful negotiations. Despite the harshest words to come from a U.S. president on the issue of settlements in recent history, Netanyahu continues their expansion and allows the ethnic cleansing of Arab East Jerusalem through home demolition to continue.
The question that remains is this: Will Obama continue to allow Netanyahu to dictate the future of the Palestinians, or will the U.S. president put his foot down and be the leader most of the world is hoping he will be?