A day after the empty photo-op between President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and West Bank President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN, and the Israelis are clucking that they are "satisfied" with the outcome. And why not? Obama put on his stern face, chided the two sides for failing to bridge their differences, used the verb "restrain" instead of "suspend" with reference to the settlements, and instructed both sides to send emissaries to Washington to continue the pre-talk talks. From Netanyahu's perspective, this outcome was a victory. Pressed by US special envoy George Mitchell right up to the eve of Rosh ha-Shana to announce a suspension of settlement construction in Israeli-occupied territories, Netanyahu just said no, and even so got to meet Obama in a testy meeting in New York. For his part, Abbas stood firm on his demands, and still got a meeting with Obama. OK, the two adversaries had to shake hands for the cameras with Obama looking on - but we've seen frustrated American presidents supervise such meaningless gestures in the past.
Middle East leaders watch the same cable news organs and read the same newspapers we do. They see that President Obama can be rolled by Republican senators over his domestic agenda. Even with a 60-seat majority in the Senate, the Democratic president seems constitutionally incapable of pushing through on his own with health care reform. Obama's calm, take-it-slow chase after "bipartisan" concurrence; his abdication of the role of chief executive in favor of legislative proceduralism; and his quixotic pursuit of an elusive congressional consensus have resulted in nothing more than Beltway gridlock. Deadlines pass, arguments fester, and nothing gets done.
Netanyahu understands all this, and figured quite simply that if the weak Republicans can smack down the stall on Obama over health care, he can do no less on behalf of his domestic voters over Israeli settlements.
Message to world leaders, broadcast every day throughout the world: there is no apparent downside to saying no to Barack Obama. This president can be rolled.