U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion
Obama speaks during an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport. Photo by Reuters
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AFP
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laugh during their joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Photo by AFP

Barack Obama has shown that he can change the world in one speech. More than once.

But he's yet to face a challenge, or an audience, like the one invited to Jerusalem's convention center Thursday.

The speech to Israeli students has been widely viewed as the cornerstone of Obama's current visit to Israel. It may also prove the hinge event, one of the determinants in the question of whether the presidential swing will prove historic, or little more than a footnote.

The Obama address is something of a bypass operation, an explicit effort at skirting Israel's contentious and unwieldy political sector, in order to connect with Israelis themselves.

Not just any Israelis, however.

If there is any one group in Israeli society whose votes could make or break a future peace, it is young people. This, the generation which grew up amid the brief hopes and lasting disappointments of the two decades since Israel and the Palestinians first shook hands at the Clinton White House.

On the face of it, this would seem a poor juncture to push for progress toward a two-state solution, or even a perfunctory resumption of talks between the current leaders of Israel and the Palestinians.

Never before has an Israeli government been so firmly and formally in the control of the settlement movement. Pro-settlement politicians, many themselves settlers, now run the Defense, Foreign and Housing Ministries, as well as the powerful Knesset Finance Committee.

At the same time, never in the near half-century of the occupation, has grass-roots Israeli sympathy for settlement been more tepid, more brittle, more vulnerable to revelations about the decades of under-the-table funding which have diverted huge sums away from social needs within Israel.

After all these years, polls continue to show that Israelis would much prefer a two-state solution to indefinite Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The settlers have used everything in their power to win over Israeli hearts and minds.

Can Obama succeed where the settlement movement has failed?

The key may lie in Israel's younger generation.

If this group provides a window of future opportunity, it will not be because of an ideological commitment to seeking an end to occupation, or because of a belief in the feasibility and necessity of peace.

Quite the contrary – if there is any reason to believe that Obama can nudge, persuade, charm or electrify his student audience into seeing advantages to renewed peace moves, it will be the fact that many of Israel's young people have had it up to here with the ideologies that have kept this country fiercely, self-destructively, often paralytically polarized for the whole of its brief history.

In the massive social protests two years ago, in the sudden success of upstart political parties and untried new leaders, younger Israeli voters have demonstrated openness to new modes of thinking.

Many on the ideological margins, left and right alike, have been aghast at what appears to be a selfishness of orientation among the young, their desire simply to be able to live a normal life, to earn a reasonable living, to have better schools and better health care, to be able to raise children without going to war or occupation duty themselves, or worrying that in another several years, their children will.

But what they are seeking, at root, is to live in a stable democracy, a well-accepted trading partner in the community of nations - rather than a pariah state.

If Barack Obama can persuade the students in Jerusalem that supporting peace moves toward two states can provide them a better future, if he can open a door that young Israelis will want to go through, and if he can convince them that he will have their back if they do, he might well be giving peace a chance – if not in this government, in the next. Which, as many young voters suspect, may not be so far down the road.