Obama to Israelis: Don't Listen to Bibi

The president spoke over Netanyahu's head during his speech to Israelis today -- just as he has done with the GOP and the American public.
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President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

After four years of frustration, Barack Obama found a way to deal with a recalcitrant Republican leadership in Washington: Go over their heads. In Israel on Thursday, the president appeared to adopt a similar tactic: Faced with an uncompromising prime minister whose new coalition is likely to be even more hawkish on Palestinian peace talks, he spoke over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's head to the Israeli people.

And Obama did a very effective job of it. After loading up the top of his speech with eloquent promises of support for Israel in the face of threats from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and noting "that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger," the president delivered his real message. Obama bluntly warned Israelis about the dangers of becoming an apartheid state if they retain control of the occupied territories, and the necessity of "two states for two peoples." "You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future," Obama said. "Given the demographics west of the Jordan River [that is, higher Arab birth rates in occupied lands that could mean a larger Arab than Jewish population if there is no new Palestinian state], the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine."

Israelis, Obama said, can no longer succumb to the "undertow of isolation" in the international community, and they are also kidding themselves if they think their "Iron Dome" missile-defense system can protect them from "the march of technology."

Obama also spoke frankly to the Jewish audience at the Jerusalem Convention Center of the plight of the Palestinians, in a way they may never had heard before: "Put yourself in their shoes -- look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished.... Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

"Peace begins," Obama added, "not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people." And then the president delivered the real zinger to his frosty (but smiling) Israeli counterpart, Netanyahu: "I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see."

On a trip that lacked traditional presidential "deliverables"--any prospect of an agreement on Palestine, Iran, or anything else--the speech may well prove to be Obama's most effective moment.

The speech received warm applause, worrying some Israeli hawks in the audience. The tactic was foreshadowed by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who wrote Thursday's speech, in a briefing ahead of the trip. Even more important than the "broad agenda" for the two governments, Rhodes said, was the "opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people."

Obama had little choice, perhaps. From the very beginning of his presidency, Netanyahu has repeatedly blocked and embarrassed Obama over efforts to restart Palestinian peace talks, beginning with a settlements freeze. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden was outraged when, during his trip, Israel's Interior Ministry announced the construction of an additional 1,600 apartments in East Jerusalem. And now Netanyahu's new Cabinet is stocked with ultra-hawkish supporters of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, including the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, and his deputy, Danny Danon, who all but ensure that there will be no movement by the government.

The Obama tactic of bypassing recalcitrant leadership may work at home, especially on the issue of immigration. It will be a much tougher prospect abroad. But it's all the president can realistically do right now.

Presented by

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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