Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory — won on the strength of his temporary promise never to approve a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel — was akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
He hoodwinked the Israeli electorate with an 11th-hour declaration that there never would be a Palestinian state on his watch, if given another term. The statement seemed to turn things around for him, drawing heavy hard-right support that positioned his Likud Party to form a new coalition government.
Then, in an interview with MSNBC — not an Israeli channel — he brazenly flip-flopped, saying: "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two two-state solution." He added a caveat: "But for that, circumstances have to change" — a politician's dodge if ever there was one.
The flim-flam was as slick and bold as any Tammany Hall operation in the days of Boss Tweed. Having drawn in the local voters, the move threw a post-election bone to President Barack Obama, who had bought in with Bibi on the two-state solution and momentarily had been left out alone on a limb.
The prime minister also had invoked his own version of an old-time George Wallace racial scare. He warned of a surge of heavy Arab voter turnout that also appeared to turn the trick for him, giving him enough seats in the Israeli parliament to remain in power.
President Obama was not amused. He was already known to hold Mr. Netanyahu in minimum regard for his speech to the U.S. Congress attacking his nuclear negotiations with Iraq. It was arranged through House Speaker John Boehner behind the president's back.
Just before the Israeli election, according to the Washington Post, presidential press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the prime minister's remark about Arab voting was an election-day tactic that sought "to marginalize one segment of their population," and called it "deeply concerning and divisive."
Nevertheless, the White House reported that the president called Mr. Netanyahu and congratulated him on the election, while expressing, according to the Post, "concern about his election-eve rhetoric" and stressing "U.S. commitment to a 'sovereign and viable' Palestinian state."
Mr. Netanyahu evidently was not concerned about the difficulty his election-eve flip-flop on the two-state solution might cause Mr. Obama at home. It gave the Republicans another example with which to cast the American president as an ineffective pushover, an image peddled constantly.
In any event, Mr. Earnest said the remarks on no Palestinian state on Mr. Netanyahu's watch risked eroding the two-state concept that Mr. Obama shared with the prime minister. The administration "needs to rethink our approach," he said, "and that's what we will do."
Under the circumstances, Mr. Obama could be tempted, and without blame, to do something to put Mr. Netanyahu in his place for the treatment he meted out. But it's hardly realistic that the president would desist from advocating for the two-state solution.
Up to now, the United States has abstained from proposals in the United Nations to recognize the state of Palestine on its own. But that might be one option for Mr. Obama to consider that undoubtedly would not sit well with Bibi. Another might be to threaten to no longer block the Palestinians' bid to have their allegations of terror and abuse against Israel taken up by the International Criminal Court.
Since American support for Israel remains so strong here, as seen in the huge welcome accorded the prime minister at his speech to Congress, neither is likely. So Mr. Obama will have to find some way to show his ire. The historical bond forged since the day of Harry Truman's recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 will surely survive even the remarkable chutzpah of Bibi.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, already has more than enough headaches to deal with in the Middle East — not just Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic State, Yemen and Iran and the Bomb — to be bothered trying to chop down an ego even bigger than his own.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.