Obama's speech may have abandoned objectivity and made for uneasy listening for any Palestinian or even neutral observer, but he nonetheless made a powerful case to his mainstream, Zionist audience. It is a case Israelis seldom hear, even from their own supposedly liberal politicians.
Obama couched his peace argument in support of a two-state deal on three axes: that it is necessary, just, and possible. He was on familiar terrain when making his first point -- having made most of the arguments in his AIPAC speech of May 22nd 2011, on the challenges of demography, security, and looming diplomatic isolation. The second and third arguments he made on the case for peace constituted Obama's new pitch to the Israeli public. He appealed to morality (it's just) and to hope (it's possible) -- precisely the themes that have been missing from the internal Israeli debate for many years. Many politicians (albeit not Netanyahu or most of his ministers) make the necessity argument, but almost none including the centrist leader Yair Lapid and opposition Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch dare make the argument that peace is a just and possible path.
So far so good, Mr. President. Great speech, but what next? The visit has offered nothing new on the programmatic side, no plan for going forward. My hunch is that Obama knows that putting Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back in a room together will achieve nothing, and that he is in no great hurry or places no great faith in those talks. Obama will also be very aware that while Netanyahu repeated his two-state message in their press conference, he nonetheless did not incorporate that language or anything approximating it in the coalition guidelines and agreements for his new government. Less than half of Netanyahu's cabinet is on record supporting a two-state deal, and many coalition ministers, deputy ministers, and Knesset members openly advocate the annexation of the West Bank. Obama presumably also knows that making one speech and then hoping that the Israeli public will do the rest of the work is not serious.
If Obama does decide to prioritize a peace deal during his second term, and that is a big if, an admittedly optimistic take could look like this: Secretary of State John Kerry might shuttle between the parties to discuss the parameters and even convene direct or trilateral talks. He will also court support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama in his Ramallah press conference with Abbas seemed to rule out a focus on incremental steps for their own sake (he might be tempted by the idea of a Palestinian state with interim borders, but on that too Netanyahu's best offer will fall short of providing an opening). Progress will be elusive; Netanyahu will offer little.
Eventually, if Kerry makes a convincing case, the president might conclude that a moment of choice has arrived and put forward his own terms of reference for convening an international conference or something similar. He mentioned his previous parameters during the Jerusalem speech, which included borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Obama would then draw on the credit accrued during this visit to appeal directly to the Israeli public in the face of predictable recalcitrance from Netanyahu. The Israeli center might be impressed and might even generate a little pressure. Like I said, optimistic stuff.
And sadly, even this would be insufficient if several other pieces are not put in place. Key among those is that there will be consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism, if not from the United States then from Europe and others; that there is a politically empowered Palestinian side no longer weakened by its current divisions; and that a detailed and nuanced plan exists for engaging with Israel's myriad tribal political leaders, including those who were not in the room on this visit and in whom Obama has yet to take an interest, such as the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab parties. Big ifs indeed.
Still, nice speech, Mr. President.