RAMALLAH, West Bank -- President Barack Obama shuttled between the West Bank and Jerusalem on Thursday, prodding Palestinians and Israelis to restart peace talks as he acknowledged decades of frustration but insisted it’s in both sides’ best interest.
To students in Israel, Obama delivered an impassioned speech that promised unwavering U.S. support for Israel but also called peace with the Palestinians critical to Israel’s survival, “given the demographics west of the Jordan River.” And he made his case on moral grounds, arguing that Palestinians have a right to be “a free people” on their own land.
“The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,” Obama said. “Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation.”
Obama made the pitch to revive talks not to Israeli politicians in the Knesset, but to a convention center audience comprised of college students who mostly received him warmly.
“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do,” Obama told the audience. “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Speaking earlier at a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Obama said his administration is “deeply committed” to creating an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. “We cannot give up on the search for peace,” Obama said. “Too much is at stake.”
Motioning to Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama pledged that Kerry intends to spend “significant time, effort and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties.” Kerry is expected to return to the region for talks after Obama wraps up his trip Saturday in Jordan.
But Obama, who said all parties need to “break out of the old habits,” raised some hackles among Palestinians as he backed off a previous call for Israel to halt settlement building on land the Palestinians claim as a condition for peace talks.
Instead, he said the “core issue” is sovereignty for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis.
“That’s the essence of this negotiation,” he said. “That’s not to say settlements are not important. It is to say that if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved.”
In 2009, Obama said the U.S. did not “accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” On Thursday, Obama said only that the administration does not consider settlement activity to be “something that can advance the cause of peace.”
An Israeli official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, speaking anonymously as a matter of government policy, said he was “supremely satisfied” with Obama’s position and that it showed “Israel and the U.S. were completely in sync on all the critical issues.”
Palestinian officials publicly praised Obama, though Abbas rarely smiled during the brief press conference held in the authority’s compound in the West Bank’s urban capital.
Speaking through an interpreter, Abbas said there was global opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.
“It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity so that we can speak of issues,” Abbas said.
Privately, one senior Palestinian government official, speaking anonymously in order to speak candidly about the talks, said Obama’s appearance was “deeply disappointing" and his trip “meaningless, as he offered nothing new that will give us, once and for all, a state of Palestine.”
But at the speech in Jerusalem, Obama noted that Israelis “must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable – that real borders will have to be drawn.”
He asked the students to look at the situation through Palestinian eyes.
“It’s not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day,” Obama said.
Obama’s remarks came on the second day of a Middle East tour aimed largely at assuring skeptical Israelis that he fully backs the beleaguered nation when it comes to its threatening neighbors.
His visit was punctuated with a rocket attack by Hamas militants in Gaza on the Israeli town of Sderot, a border city that Obama had visited as a presidential candidate in 2008. Obama condemned the rocket attack, calling it a “violation of an important cease-fire that protects both Israel and Palestine.”
“You are not alone,” he told the Jerusalem audience in English and Hebrew. “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the Earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”
He sought to contrast Hamas-run Gaza with the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank, touting Abbas’ leadership and success in beefing up security. He noted Palestinian forces are now patrolling cities including Bethlehem, where he and Abbas are scheduled to visit the Church of the Nativity on Friday – after Obama has lunch with Netanyahu.
In Jerusalem, Obama said that Israelis, whom he noted withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon “and then faced terror and rockets,” had a “true partner” in Abbas.
It’s too early to tell if Obama’s speech will get talks started, but David Makovsky, director of the The Washington Institute’s project on the Middle East peace process, said Obama “broke through to Israelis in a way he has not in four years.”
Obama succeeded in demonstrating that he cares about Israel’s security and acknowledged their frustration with missed opportunities for peace, Makovsky said. But he also made a “moral and strategic case” for why it can’t be neglected.
“And that tough message was wrapped in an embrace,” he said. “He also leveled with the Palestinians that they’re not going to get everything they want.”
In Jerusalem, Danny Mazor, a 21-year-old from Ben Gurion University who attended the speech, said it completely won him over.
"I wasn’t always the biggest Obama fan,” Mazor said. “Actually a couple years ago I thought he was a pretty bad guy, the kind of guy that would take the side of the Arabs over us. But I really like what he’s been saying here, especially at the speech to us.”