In Israel, Obama calls on Palestinians to ease stance on peace talks

President Obama urged Israelis on Thursday to move decisively in a spirit of self-preservation and empathy to secure a lasting peace, but he delivered an even sharper ultimatum to Palestinians to drop conditions that have held up a new round of negotiations.

His evening address at the Jerusalem International Convention Center signaled a shift away from the balance he has sought to maintain between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since taking office — and toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had a stormy relationship, at least until this trip.

Obama did not address a large Palestinian audience during his visit, a testament to how disillusioned much of the Arab world has grown with his administration.

His policy adjustments left Palestinian leaders, whom he talked to earlier in the day, with a measure of U.S. moral support for an independent state. But Obama also made clear that Palestinians should drop conditions — that Israel freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem — that he once supported as a way to restart negotiations.

That approach was greeted with doubt by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who said the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is dousing young Palestinians’ aspirations to live in a state of their own. “This is very dangerous,’’ he said in a joint news conference with Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The ebullience in Jerusalem and the uneasiness in Ramallah captured the contours of Obama’s challenge as he seeks to revive the unsuccessful Israeli-Palestinian peace process of his early first term.

As he prepared to move on to Jordan on Friday, Obama made clear that he wants his new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to build on the foundation he laid here in concept during the visit.

But senior administration officials said no specific plans are in place to revive direct negotiations — last held in earnest more than four years ago.

Obama told both sides Thursday that the talks, at a time of far-reaching change in the broader Arab world, should begin quickly.

Drawing on his political experience, the president added that doing so would require sacrifices that may come about only through the demands of the Israeli and Palestinian people.

“Let me say this as a politician: I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks,” Obama said to loud applause in Jerusalem. “You must create the change that you want to see.”

He offered the Israeli audience the warm embrace that much of the public here has become accustomed to from U.S. presidents, but didn’t receive from this one during his first term.

His delivery — and unvarnished celebration of Israel’s achievements — at times electrified the audience members, many of them university students bused in for the event. Many filled the seats, balconies and aisles to hear an American president once deeply unpopular here.

“He really inspired us to do something and go over the heads of the politicians,” said Arbel Freiman, 26, a computer science student at Tel Aviv University. “It was good he talked to the people. People think they don’t have the power to bring change.”

Obama assured the audience of the unequivocal U.S. support for Israel that many here doubted during his first term, saying that “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 added, to raucous applause. “So long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd,” which translates from Hebrew to “You are not alone.”

Gilad Shohat, 26, a student at Tel Aviv University, said, “Maybe this will light a spark,” adding, “He managed to break through the cynicism of young people in this country.”

Among the reasons for Obama’s poor standing among Israelis — and the rationale for this presidential trip of remedial diplomacy — was the pressure he applied on Israel early in his first term to restore U.S. credibility with the Arab world.

In doing so, he rattled many Israelis by saying he would not accept the “legitimacy”of Israeli settlement construction on land it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

After meeting with Abbas at the Muqata government compound in Ramallah, Obama said that although the continued Israeli settlement activity is an obstacle to the two-state solution he favors, it should not prevent the Palestinians from returning to the negotiating table. He said his administration does not consider building on land that Palestinians view as their future state “to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace.”

Those appeared to be softer terms than the ones he used in 2009 to describe Israeli building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, when he said in a speech in Cairo that the United States would not accept the legitimacy of future Israeli construction.

“I will say, with respect to Israel, that the politics there are complex and I recognize that that’s not an issue that’s going to be solved immediately,” Obama said on Thursday. “What I shared with President Abbas and I will share with the Palestinian people is that if the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations.”

The tension between the two most powerful Palestinian political movements — Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, and Fatah, a viable partner for peace negotiations — was evident Thursday when at least two Gaza-fired rockets landed in southern Israel. No one was hurt in the attack, which Obama condemned.

Hours later, after celebrating Jewish history and resilience, Obama called on Israelis to respect the Palestinians’ right to a state.

“Look at the world through their eyes,” he said of young Palestinians, interrupted several times by applause as he continued. “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own.”

Obama went on to recount an afternoon visit to the Al Bireh Youth Development Resource Center in Ramallah, where he saw a group of several young women dance to traditional Palestinian music.

“Talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters,” Obama said. “They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed, I want them to prosper.’ ”

Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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