March 21, 2013

Obama preaches peace in Middle East

He prods both Israelis and Palestinians to resume talks, telling young people 'Peace is possible.'

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Insisting "peace is possible," President Obama on Thursday prodded both Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations.

U.S. President Obama and Palestinian President Abbas pose for a photo during a welcoming ceremony in Ramallah
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President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pose with Palestinian children Thursday after Obama traveled to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian leaders. He urged both sides to shed the “formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long.”


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A Palestinian woman walks past vandalized posters showing President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday.

The Associated Press

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Obama set few, if any, pre-conditions, softening his earlier demands that Israel stop building settlements in disputed territory.

The president made his appeal just hours after rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza landed in a southern Israeli border town, a fresh reminder of the severe security risks and tensions that have stymied peace efforts for decades.

Obama, on his second day in the Middle East, shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah, reaching out to the public as well as political leaders.

He offered no new policies or plans for reopening peace talks but urged both sides to "think anew" about the intractable conflict and break out of the "formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."

"Peace is possible," Obama declared during an impassioned speech to young people in Jerusalem. "I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible."

The deep disputes dividing the Israelis and Palestinians have remained much the same over the years, and include deciding the status of Jerusalem, defining borders and resolving refugee issues.

Palestinians have been particularly incensed over Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the Israelis' continued construction has also drawn the condemnation of the United States and other nations.

Further settlement activity is "counterproductive to the cause of peace," Obama said. But in a notable shift, he did not repeat his administration's previous demands that Israel halt construction. Instead he urged the Palestinians to stop using the disagreement as an "excuse" to avoid talks.

"If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there is no point for negotiations," Obama said during a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. "I think it is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides."

Abbas said Palestinians remain committed to seeking peace with Israelis, but he made clear that settlement construction had made his people distrustful of Israel's intentions.

"This is very dangerous that people and the new generation reaches the conviction that it's no more possible to believe in the two-state solution," he said.

Obama has sided with the Palestinians on the settlement issue during his first four years in office. However, when Israel reluctantly declared a 10-month moratorium on construction, the Palestinians balked at returning to negotiations until shortly before the suspension expired and talks foundered shortly thereafter.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem -- territories Israel captured in the 1967 war -- but indicate they are ready for minor adjustments to accommodate some settlements closest to Israel. Since 1967, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are now home to 560,000 Israelis - an increase of 60,000 since Obama became president four years ago.

Upon his return to Israel, the president told Israelis that in the search for peace they have "true partners" in Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister.

Obama is spending most of his four-day Mideast trip in Israel, where the politicians and public have been skeptical of his commitment to their security. He remindied an audience of Israeli university students Thursday that the U.S. is their country's most important ally.

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Additional Photos

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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leave after a joint news conference at the Muqata Presidential Compound, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, on Thursday.

The Associated Press

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President Obama is greeted by children waving Israeli and American flags as he arrives at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday in Jerusalem.

The Associated Press

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President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddle during their joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday.

The Associated Press

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