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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT