Political Animal


May 09, 2013 10:52 AM Leveraging a Big Speech

By Ed Kilgore

Remember Barack Obama’s trip to Israel in March, which began with very low expectations but produced a speech that many Israelis were immediately praising as a potentially game-changing moment for their country?

A few weeks later, has anything actually changed in the Israel-Palestinian relationship?

Well, it’s hard to say; both Israel (which had elections not long before Obama’s visit) and the Palestinians have been going through a lot of internal political developments, and everyone in the region has been more than a little distracted by events in Syria. But even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stays in close personal touch with Israeli officials as a follow-up to the president’s trip, there are reports Bibi Netanyahu is planning or has already quietly implemented a freeze on settlement construction.

Sometimes major presidential speeches in other countries take a while to have an effect, but ultimately do. In the Editor’s Note for the May-June issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris suggests that may happen in the Middle East, and cites his experience with Bill Clinton as a precedent:

In November of 1999, President Bill Clinton flew to Turkey and Greece on a trip aimed at easing tensions in the broader Balkan region, and in particular between those two countries. As the Greek American on Clinton’s speechwriting staff, it fell to me to write the address he would give in Athens. The Greek-Turkish problem was not nearly as geostrategically important as the Israel-Palestine situation, but it seemed no less intractable.

Aided by the coincidence of each country responding with much-needed humanitarian aid when the other suffered a major earthquake, Clinton was able to deliver a speech that disarmed decades of anti-American feeling in Greece, much as Obama’s March speech in Israel seemed to clear the air there.

A month later, the Greek government dropped its veto of Turkey’s EU candidacy, a risky move domestically but one made less politically painful by Clinton’s speech. Today, tensions between Greece and Turkey still exist, but they are a fraction of what they once were.
This was not the only time Clinton used his rhetorical skills to alter seemingly intractable geostrategic realities. His 1995 speech in Belfast paved the way for the Good Friday Accords, and his 2000 speech before the Indian parliament launched a new strategic partnership between the world’s two biggest democracies, estranged during the Cold War.

Sometimes big speeches have big consequences.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Dredd on May 09, 2013 11:04 AM:

    "Sometimes big speeches have big consequences."

    Everyone, I think, remembers speeches of Winston Churchill which garnered him widespread popularity.

    Which then translated into political power which caused dominoes to fall for years and lead to global warming ... of all things.

    Gives new meaning to warming speeches.

    "Sometimes big speeches have big consequences."

  • Tony Greco on May 09, 2013 12:07 PM:

    So Obama may have generated enough good feeling in Israel to induce Netanyahu into making a conciliatory gesture--one that can and will be easily reversed when the time is right. The fact remains that the Likud coalition has no interest in a political settlement that would create anything resembling a genuinely viable, sovereign Palestinian state. A real game change will require a major shift in Israeli politics, and I don't think a praiseworthy speech by a US president is going to bring that about.

  • jjm on May 09, 2013 12:21 PM:

    To @ Tony Greco: You seem not to notice that 1) Netanyahu is now quietly stopping the settlements in the West Bank 2) that Kerry is scheduled to go to the ME in a week or two to meet with both sides, and that 3) Netanyahu has been severely curtailed in his own elections and -- very importantly -- by the re-election of Obama, rather than by his buddy Mitt Romney... Romney's losing may be the most important step forward toward a peaceful solution ever. We'll see.

    Obama's marvelous speech was important IN Israel because it helped bolster those opposed to Netanyahu's policies, and permitted ordinary Israelis to see Obama for what he actually is, rather than the Muslim-lover the government and its allies tried to paint him as ...

  • Dredd on May 09, 2013 1:41 PM:

    I hope Obama's SOTU speech gets through to those who are warming the bench.

    The people of Israel were more receptive to his speech than the hawks were.