It lasted only for a moment, but in that brief instant their faces said it all. On stage right sat Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, grinning. In the middle was Barack Obama, the US president, smiling as camera flashes went off.
|From left to right: Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas met briefly on Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations annual General Assembly in New York [GALLO/GETTY]
On stage left sat Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), looking sullen and abandoned, wondering why he was even there.
When originally announced, this week's meeting between the three leaders was intended to showcase at least a modicum of substantive progress in moving Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table under America's aegis. But Israel's steadfast refusal to any settlement freeze meant that no progress would be forthcoming at the "mini-summit".
Netanyahu, who has been playing the peace process game on the world stage since Obama was a 20-something community organiser in Chicago, knew full well that his intransigence on settlements would cost Israel nothing in terms of continued US aid and support.
At worst, Obama would chide both sides equally for failing to do their part to move negotiations forward, even though it has become clear to the entire world, never mind Israelis and Palestinians, that the refusal to halt settlement construction is the issue holding up a resumption of talks.
Abbas has said that he will not resume negotiations until a freeze is in place, while Netanyahu has said he is ready for unconditional negotiations.
Schooled by Netanyahu?
|Obama, right, called on the Palestinians to halt incitement to violence [GETTY]
Violence against Israel from the PA-controlled West Bank and even Hamas-controlled Gaza is practically zero and Israel retains unchallenged control of the land and airspace of the two territories.
This left Obama with not much to do but ask Palestinians "to do more to stop incitement" - as if outdated Palestinian history textbooks, periodic anti-Jewish diatribes (which are no worse than the routine anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric by Israeli politicians and commentators), and not the half a million settlers, are what stand between occupation and independence.
He also called on Palestinians "to move forward with negotiations", as if the PA is the side that is refusing to accede to the confidence-building measures requested by the US.
As long as Obama continues to blame Palestinians as well as Israelis so as not to appear biased in favour of the former, Netanyahu knows he will get off with little more than a mild public reprimand, which is precisely what happened earlier this week.
The relentless attacks since the 2008 presidential campaign in the US and Israeli right-wing press accusing Obama of being "pro-Palestinian" have worked according to plan, forcing him into overt displays of "even-handedness" precisely when he needs to assign the blame firmly and honestly regardless of appearances.
For its part, the mainstream press, generally sympathetic to Obama, has accepted the administration's spin on the meeting, and is describing Obama as acting the part of the "stern teacher lecturing two classroom miscreants," as Haaretz described the meeting with more than a hint of irony.
In reality, however, it is not Netanyahu and Abbas who were sent to the principal's office. Rather, to borrow a phrase from the president's beloved game of basketball, it was Obama who got schooled by Netanyahu.
There is a reason why the Israeli leader was the one wearing a genuine grin as Obama told assembled reporters about his "frank and productive bilateral meetings" (meaning the three leaders did not hold tri-lateral "talks" or discuss pending issues) with his two counterparts.
Spin, jump, and slam dunk. Game Over.
Or is it?
Obama in Hollywood
|Obama's "strong" speech at the UN gave some hope that the US had Israeli concessions [EPA]
Arab and even Israeli media are aflutter with talk about Obama's weakness in the face of Netanyahu's intransigence.
One Likud Knesset member, Danny Danon, said: "I hope the summit stops the Hollywood movie in which Obama lives."
One could imagine any number of Hollywood fantasies that Danon believes Obama inhabits, but the most likely one has a script in which Israel actually freezes settlement-building before it determines that there is no more land worth the trouble of seizing.
When Obama once again renewed his call for a settlement freeze in his speech at the UN General Assembly, few observers in and outside the region took it seriously.
This is not because a freeze would be practicably meaningless even if Israel agreed to such a measure - and how seriously can one take Defence Minister Ehud Barak declaring a freeze a "national necessity" the day after approving 500 new units?
Rather, it is because everyone knows that the only way the US could force Israel to engage in a legitimate halt to settlement expansion would be through an overt threat to suspend military, economic and/or political support for Israel.
And Obama will not dare undertake such an approach.
Hope at the UN
Nevertheless, some are hopeful following Obama's strong declaration that the US "doesn't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement" and his urging of all nations to support Arab-Israeli peace talks.
But if one reads the president's speech carefully a more distressing dynamic reveals itself.
It is not just that Obama again focuses on Palestinian "incitement" while saying nothing about Israel's continued siege of Gaza.
And it is not only about his calls for an "independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory" when only a significant dismantling, not freezing, of settlements (bypass walls and the Wall) would enable this.
Nor is it his urging that Arab states support peace talks when they have already signed onto the far-reaching Saudi peace plan, which includes full peace and normalisation with Israel.
Instead, it is the slipshod way in which this intellectually gifted president framed his broader remarks to the assembly that reinforces the fear that he does not have the will to resolutely deal with the century-old Palestinian problem.
Time running out
This is partially evident when he says "America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy" and pledged to work toward that end.
This is contradictory, particularly in the Middle East, where Obama has adhered to a realpolitik foreign policy that has all but abandoned anything beyond rhetorical pressure on Arab allies to stop torturing and effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of their citizens.
Ultimately, Obama's incapacity to seriously confront Israel is a symptom of his greater unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to discuss the radical changes in the world economic and political systems that will be necessary to bring peace, democracy and sustainable development to the developing world and avert global environmental disaster.
He is not the first president to turn from such a challenge; his predecessors at least since Ronald Reagan, the former US president, were no more honest or willing to risk their political futures for the common good.
But the cost of inaction today is far greater than it was one or two generations, or even presidencies, ago.
In interviews he gave to Israeli media on the eve of his trip to New York, Netanyahu bragged that he is the famous cartoon character Popeye, heroically withstanding US pressure to freeze settlement construction.
The comparison is instructive, even if many might consider Popeye's fair-weather friend Brutus - who by traditional definition is a bully - a more apt comparison.
But it confirms that Obama needs to find a can of spinach and get some strength soon, because time is running out.
Not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for us all.
Mark LeVine is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His most recent books include Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009) and Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2008).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.