Obama also will likely have a trump card in these particular circumstances that he lacked during his first term: the support of an Israeli public grateful to him for standing up for Israel's right to defend itself in this conflict, and for funding the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system that is doing so much to protect them. In addition, Netanyahu is facing an election in eight weeks. While he clearly leads in all polling, he knows that the electorate will punish him if he mishandles this conflict -- or his relationship with a newly popular, newly elected American president who is trying to extract Israel from a sticky predicament.
But just how should President Obama engage? The first step was dispatching his secretary of state to Israel and Egypt. The large number of would-be negotiators that have already turned up there - Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the U.N.'s Ban Ki-moon, Qatar's Hamad bin Jassem, and now the Quartet's Tony Blair -- can only complicate the process. They cannot substitute for a partnership between the United States and Egypt -- one using its influence with Israel, the other with Hamas -- to put together a ceasefire package as the foundation for a wider resolution of the conflict.
Hillary Clinton's first objective should be a comprehensive ceasefire which Hamas commits to impose on all the terrorist groups now operating in Gaza. This should be complemented by a series of reciprocal commitments. Israel will need to implement the ceasefire on its side, open the passages that would allow the flow of goods into and out of Gaza, and allow Gazans access to the sea; Egypt would have to agree to open the Rafah passage between Gaza and Egypt. In return, Hamas would have to commit to prevent any act of violence against Israel emanating from Gaza -- including attacks from Sinai that originate in Gaza. Hamas also has to commit to prevent the smuggling of offensive weapons -- rockets, in particular -- into Gaza. Monitoring mechanisms would need to be established to ensure compliance, including passage monitors, stepped up Egyptian patrols of its border with Gaza, and an international maritime inspection force. To this end, the Palestinian Authority would need to be given responsibility for policing the passages on the Palestinian side, as it is the only recognized Palestinian government and the only one that Israel will deal with directly. In the event of non-compliance by Hamas, the passages would simply be shut down until they came back into compliance.
Clinton can set all this up for him, but Obama's indispensable role will be to sharpen the choices for each of the parties and provide the necessary incentives for them to make the right ones. Only an American president committed to resolving the conflict rather than just tamping it down can achieve that. If Hamas is willing finally to choose between feeding the people of Gaza and fighting Israel, this arrangement could hold, providing the foundations for a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation that would present Israel with a unified Palestinian partner for peace negotiations. If Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood president is willing to make his own choice between feeding the Egyptian people and the Brotherhood's anti-American, anti-Israeli ideology, he could help persuade Hamas to take the right course and regain Egypt's role as a broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace and a power player in the region. And if Israel's prime minister is willing to choose between lifting an increasingly counterproductive siege of Gaza and returning to the unsatisfactory status quo of intermittent rocket attacks on his citizens, a virtuous dynamic can be created to replace the destructive cycle that threatens to dramatically worsen the region's tumult, and Israel's well-being.
But there is only one person in the world that can make this happen. And doing so will require that President Obama pivots back to the Middle East once more, before he heads off to Asia again.