Obama shifts tone on Israeli settlements


McClatchy Newspapers

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.”

Email:lclark@mcclatchydc.com; twitter:@lesleyclark; sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @sheeraf

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

Pope Francis baptizes 10-year-hold Giorgio Capezzuoli during the Easter vigil service in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican Saturday, April 19, 2014. Pope Francis baptized 10 people Saturday as he presided over an Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, fulfilling a ritual deep in meaning on the most solemn night of the Catholic calendar. Francis urged the priests, bishops, cardinals and ordinary Catholics gathered for the late night service to remember when they first found their faith. "Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Look for it. You'll find it. The Lord is waiting."

    Pope seeks to bring faith to "ends of the Earth"

    Pope Francis baptized 10 people Saturday and urged them to bring their faith "to the ends of the Earth" as he presided over an Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica.

Friends surround Melquin Merchan, an 18-year-old painter from Aracataca, as he paints a portrait of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in front of the house where the Nobel laureate was born in Aracataca, Colombia, Friday, April 18, 2014. Garcia Marquez died at the age of 87 in Mexico City on Thursday.

    Colombia hopes to share Garcia Marquez remains

    The final resting place for the ashes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez remains unclear. It could be Mexico where he lived for decades or his native Colombia. Perhaps even both.

FILE - In this file photo taken May 21, 2011, miners work at a legal mining concession in Huaypetue, Madre de Dios, Peru. Government efforts to halt illegal mining have mostly been futile. The miners already have been clashing with police while intermittently blocking traffic on the commercially vital interoceanic highway that links the Pacific coast with Brazil. But officials insist this time they’re serious about combatting the multi-billion-dollar illegal mining trade that accounts for about 20 percent of Peru’s gold exports.

    Deadline lapses in Peru for illegal gold miners

    The clock has run out for an estimated 40,000 illegal gold miners who had until Saturday to legalize their status in a region of southeastern Peru where fortune-seekers have ravaged rainforests and contaminated rivers. The government's vow to enforce a ban on illegal mining is raising fears of bloody confrontations.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category