Obama urges return to Israel-Palestinian peace talks

President Obama: "Negotiations will be necessary, but there is little secret about where they must lead. Two states for two peoples"

Barack Obama has called on Israelis and Palestinians to return to peace talks, as he makes his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as US president.

In a speech before Israeli students in Jerusalem, Mr Obama said a sovereign Palestinian state was the "only path for true security" in Israel.

Palestinians had "a right to be a free people in their own land", he said.

Earlier in Ramallah, he urged Palestinians to drop their demand for a freeze in Israeli settlement building.

Mr Obama's three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank is his first as president.

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This was a clear statement of what many people see as the fundamental choice facing Israeli society”

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His speech - at Jerusalem's convention centre and addressed to the Israeli public - recounted the history of the Jewish people, and stressed, as he has done throughout his visit, the close bond between Israel and the US.

But he said their country had reached a crossroads and that "the only way for Israel to to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine".

He urged Israelis to "look at the world through their eyes", saying the Palestinians' right to self-determination and justice must be recognised".

Mr Obama said Israelis had a "true partner" in Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and in the PA's Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Analysis

No-one sugars a rhetorical pill quite like Barack Obama.

The opening movement of his set-piece speech offered a history of the Jewish people and a portrait of Israeli achievements that a hard-line settler would have found hard to find fault with.

It was not a tough crowd.

At one point almost every pause triggered applause. When Mr Obama waited coolly for an indistinct heckler to be hustled out, he got a prolonged standing ovation.

But the president had come to talk peace and he did.

He talked tough about Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah - Israel's enemies - but he added forcefully: "The Palestinian people's right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised."

The president lived up to a promise to talk peace to the people as well as the politicians of Israel.

He said: "Political leaders will never talk peace if the people do not push them."

This was a sympathetic audience with plenty of young people from the left in its ranks.

Mr Obama will see his speech as mission accomplished. The unanswered question is how it will resonate in the Israel that lies beyond the hall.

He also criticised the building of Israeli settlements on land which Palestinians want to be part of a future state as being "counterproductive to the cause of peace".

Settlement building has been the major stumbling block in the peace process, with Palestinians long insisting it must stop completely before stalled talks can restart.

Mr Obama has previously backed that view and told reporters in Ramallah on Thursday that he still believed settlement activity could not "advance the cause of peace".

'Push through' differences

But in his joint news briefing with Mr Abbas, he said such problems could not be used "as an excuse to do nothing", and neither side could expect to resolve every outstanding issue before talks resumed.

"My argument is that even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, maybe engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Abbas said the Palestinian president had told Mr Obama the precondition remained in place.

"Abbas, during his meeting with Obama, was very clear, telling him that settlement construction was an obstacle on the path to peace and to the resumption of talks, and that this was not possible without a settlement freeze," said Nimr Hammad.

Barack Obama in Middle East

  • Wednesday: Meets Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Thursday: Meets Mahmoud Abbas, addresses Israeli students
  • Friday: Visits Bethlehem's Church of Nativity and later departs for Jordan

On Thursday morning, Israeli officials said two rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel, but there were no reports of anyone being hurt. A further two rockets fired from Gaza reportedly fell inside Gaza itself.

Mr Abbas condemned "violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets", according to a Palestinian spokesperson.

Before travelling to the West Bank on Thursday, Mr Obama visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with Mr Netanyahu to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. He will leave for Jordan on Friday.

Security for his three-day visit is tight, with thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers on duty.

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