Obama urges Israel, Palestinians to resume Mideast peace negotiations

President Obama on Thursday pleaded with the Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks without preconditions.

The president, visiting the Middle East for the second day, said the United States remains “deeply committed” to a two-state solution and argued that the Palestinian people “deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it."

But Obama also said the Palestinians should drop their demand that Israel cease settlements on lands that they consider part of their state before talks begin.

"If the only way to even begin the conversations is we get everything right at the outset, or at least each party is constantly in negotiation about what is required to get to the talks in the first place, then we're never going to get to the broader issue," Obama said during a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

After the meeting with Abbas in the West Bank, Obama headed to Jerusalem, where he delivered a speech exhorting young Israelis to be the catalysts for peace.

Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel, which he said is “not going anywhere,” and vowed that “as long as there's an America, you are not alone.”

But he urged the Israeli students to consider the situation faced by the Palestinians and “look at the world through their eyes.” Israel is at a “crossroads,” he said, and needs to make hard choices in order to reach a two-state solution.

He said seeking a two-state solution with the Palestinians was “just,” and drew on his meetings with Palestinian youth Thursday morning to draw parallels between their dreams and those of his audience.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but of their parents, their grandparents, every single day,” he said. 

“It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displacing Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

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Palestinian leaders have balked at rejoining negotiations as Israelis continue to build new settlements in disputed areas.

Obama said that the United States objected to the construction, but stopped short of saying that the Israelis should halt the building before peace talks resume.

"We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace," Obama said during the press conference with Abbas. "So I don't think there's any confusion as to what our position is."

Obama’s statements came just hours after Hamas militants fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot.

The president condemned the rocket attack, and said "misery" in the region persists "because Hamas refuses to renounce violence, because Hamas cares more about enforcing its own rigid dogmas than allowing Palestinians to live freely, because too often it focuses on tearing Israel down than building Palestine up."

The president acknowledged the challenges facing the peace process during his speech in Jerusalem, saying it would be easier for all sides to just continue with the status quo — including his own White House. 

“Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, and express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do,” he said.

The president said governments in the Middle East must do their part in the drive for peace by making “steps toward normalized relations with Israel.” As for the Palestinians, he said, they “must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security.”

“While I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I believe that you do have a true partner in President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad. Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few would have imagined a decade ago.”

The president was briefly interrupted by loud whistles early on in the speech.

“This is part of the lively debate that we talked about. This is good,” he said to loud applause. “I have to say we actually arranged for that. I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't have at least one heckler.”

He also downplayed reports of friction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word and gesture is carefully scrutinized,” he said. “But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for ‘Eretz Nehederet,’ ” a satirical TV show.

Obama reiterated his administration's commitment to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, a top priority of the Israeli government.

“Because of the cooperation between our governments, we know that there remains time to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” he said. “But Iran must know this time is not unlimited. And I have made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. As president, I have said to the world that all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

He promised to hold Syria's Bashar Assad “accountable” if his regime is found to have used chemical weapons. And he used the speech to obliquely call on the European Union to label Hezbollah a terrorist group.

“Every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is — a terrorist organization,” he said. “Because the world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men, women and children in Syria.”

—Updated at 1:16 p.m.