He urged these young people — and through them the wider public — to consider the world through the eyes of ordinary Palestinians. While insisting that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he stressed that continued Jewish settlement on the West Bank makes it impossible to have a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
But his effort to generate public pressure on Israeli leaders to engage in talks is likely to go nowhere. When it comes to Mideast peace, it has been leaders — Israeli and Palestinian, in the case of the Oslo talks; Israeli, Egyptian, and American in the Egypt peace talks — who led the way, encouraging their publics to follow. And the people-to-people contacts between Palestinians and Israelis that once assisted the process have virtually ended.
True, Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to try to renew the peace process. He also suggested that his own 2011 proposal to focus first on borders and security be the basis for talks. But negotiating borders implies the need to remove Jewish settlements scattered beyond those borders — a concept that’s anathema to key members of Bibi’s governing coalition.
So consider Obama’s speech moving, inspiring, and correct in its arguments that an end to serious peace negotiations is dangerous to Israel. And consider him correct in arguing that continued Jewish settlement will eventually rule out even the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
Yet by appealing to public opinion rather than to Israeli politicians, Obama indicated that he knows there is scant chance for serious negotiations — and is unlikely to pressure the two parties. That gives his eloquent rhetoric a pro forma quality, as if it is merely a cover for the real focus of his trip: Syria, Iran, and a reset of relations with Israelis. Most likely, this speech will be recalled, like the one in Cairo, as another missed chance for positive change.