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.