Skip to main content

Obama goes over Netanyahu's head to the Israeli people

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
March 21, 2013 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: A great speech about Israeli-Palestinian peace should make all uncomfortable
  • Obama's speech in Israel did, he says, and measure of its greatness will be follow-up
  • He says Benjamin Netanyahu on notice: Obama will go over his head to Israelis
  • Rothkopf: Obama must be central to process or hopes he's raised will again be deflated.

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- Any great speech about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should leave everyone feeling a bit uncomfortable. Given that all involved have contributed to the troubled situation on the ground, all must challenge themselves to create the changes that are necessary.

By this measure and virtually any other fair metric, President Barack Obama's address to Israeli students Thursday was a great speech. Boldly, pointedly and deftly, he provided a virtuoso display of political leadership and international statesmanship.

It stands as a companion piece to his great speech in Egypt early in his first term about America and the Arab world. And his great speech in the Czech Republic about nuclear disarmament. And his great Nobel Prize acceptance speech. And his many other great addresses. And like each of those resonant, masterful moments, the measure of the remarks will be in the follow-up, in the change they actually produce.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

5 things to know about Obama's first presidential visit to Israel

It is, after all, easier to be a speechmaker than a peacemaker. And in the wake of Obama's energizing address, he must now face greatly raised hopes that he will follow up on his words more successfully than he has the Cairo or Prague remarks. As Brookings Institution analyst and longtime U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk noted on CNN afterward, the president has now "raised expectations sky-high that he himself is going to work to make peace possible."

It remains to be seen whether that happens, but for a moment it is worth considering why the speech was so effective and important. Let's start by counting the people the president made uncomfortable.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We must begin with Obama's host for this visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Surely, Netanyahu must have been pleased with the repeated and persuasive statements from Obama since his arrival in Israel that he and the United States remain committed to a special relationship with Israel and to helping ensure Israeli survival. This was precisely the kind of affirmation that the Israelis hoped for from this trip, salve to the wounds -- many Netanyahu brought on himself -- acquired in the run-up to last fall's presidential elections.

But of all the slights and bumps of the past months, the president's remarks -- in a sly but unmistakable way -- delivered the toughest blow to date to Netanyahu despite their powerful pro-Israeli rhetoric and images. Because Obama sent a message to Netanyahu that if need be he would go over his head to the Israeli people.

Obama, Netanyahu agree on preventing nuclear-armed Iran

To receive this message, Obama picked a young audience that he knew represented a different portion of Israel's vibrant polity, and he had them cheering and applauding, not just at the expressions of friendship, but at tough remarks about how unconstructive Netanyahu's settlement policies have been and how vital it is to establish a safe, prospering state for the Palestinians.

Obama: 'We cannot give up' on peace
King: Obama's Israel trip a success
Obama in Israel: Symbolism or substance?

By the end, despite efforts to put an enthusiastic face on the event, Netanyahu must have been grateful there have been no Israeli politicians offering an alternative vision as clear as Obama's. Had there been, Netanyahu might have been working Thursday's speech as a commentator on Fox News.

Indeed, Obama's remarks about how all must share the aspirations of Palestinian children must have resonated particularly well with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But because this was a good and thus fair speech on the issue of peace, the president likely also made Abbas a bit uneasy with the forcefulness of his commitment to Israel's existence as a Jewish state, a commitment that cuts directly to an issue on which even the most constructive members of the Palestinian leadership have been reluctant to show flexibility.

Abbas, however, was certainly nowhere nearly as directly affronted as the Hamas leaders in Gaza, whom the president unceremoniously slammed for their rocket attacks and for their inattentiveness to the needs of the Palestinian people entrusted into their care. Further, of course, in calling out the terrorist nature of Hezbollah, the president sent yet another message concerning his willingness to confront that organization's sponsors in Tehran.

In fact, it has seemed frequently throughout this trip that it has been more about standing together with Israel on Iran, toughening the approach to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and working to support Jordan than it has been about the Israelis and the Palestinians.

John King: Walking through Ramallah and Gaza, political differences become real

But even on this last point, the speech again succeeded in making another group uncomfortable. Because in the end, it was the most potent speech an American president has ever given in Israel about the peace process, the most personal statement of commitment to it. And therefore it must have made very uncomfortable the small group of American diplomats and national security specialists who are going to have to follow through and try to live up to its promise with their actions.

In the end, Obama must make himself central to this process, actively and continuously, or the hopes it has raised will once again be cruelly deflated.

On the other hand, were he to follow through on this and help advance peace through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that agreed to the secure existence of Israel, he would also be doing much to live up to the promise of his other earlier addresses. Like those calling for better relations with the Islamic world in Cairo and advancing the cause of peace in Prague and in Oslo.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT