Middle East

Obama urges return to Israel-Palestinian peace talks

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.

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.

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.

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.