Obama shifts tone on Israeli settlements
President Obama backed off a previous call for Israel to halt settlement building on land the Palestinians claim as a condition for peace talks.
The New York Times
JERUSALEM — President Obama, appealing to disparate audiences to solve one of the world’s thorniest problems, moved closer Thursday to the Israeli government’s position on resuming long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, even as he implored young Israelis to get ahead of their leaders in the push for peace.
Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 people in Jerusalem, most of them students, Obama offered a fervent case for why a peace agreement was morally just and in Israel’s self-interest. Younger Israelis, Obama said, should empathize with their Palestinian neighbors living under occupation — or, as he put it, “look at the world through their eyes.”
Hours earlier, visiting the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Obama urged the Palestinians to return to the bargaining table even if Israel did not meet their condition of halting construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories — a demand he, too, made at the start of his first term, but which had only a temporary, partial impact.
It was a striking mix of big-stage inspiration and closed-door compromise: With the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama was laboring to nudge two stubborn adversaries; with a younger generation, he was going over the two men’s heads, seeking to stir popular enthusiasm for his vision.
By not renewing his demand that Israel halt settlement construction to get a new round of talks started, Obama was, in effect, conceding that years of careful study about how to nudge the peace process forward had failed to produce results.
“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do,” Obama said. “You must create the change that you want to see.”
Obama spoke of the past and the future.
“Israel,” he told the Jerusalem crowd, “is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.”
He was interrupted by a heckler but didn’t lose his cool.
“This is part of the lively debate that we talked about,” Obama said. “This is good.”
That got him a standing ovation. “I have to say we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home,” Obama added.
He is sending Secretary of State John Kerry back to Israel from Jordan on Saturday to meet again with Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss what happens next.
The president’s new activism, on the second day of a four-day trip to the Middle East, came hours after rockets from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza hit southern Israel. He condemned the attacks, which broke a three-month cease-fire, but said Israelis should not use the violence as an excuse to avoid negotiations.
“If we’re going to succeed, part of what we’re going to have to do is to get out of some of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long,” Obama said, as Abbas stood next to him. “Both sides are going to have to think anew.”
For his part, Abbas repeated the Palestinian demand that Israel stop settlement construction. But he did not explicitly cite that as a precondition for entering into face-to-face talks with Netanyahu. Such talks have been quiescent since 2010.
“It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity, so we can speak of the issues,” Abbas said. “The issue of settlements is clear: We never gave up our vision, whether now or previously.”
A senior administration official declined to discuss details of the meeting between Obama and Abbas.
Obama repeated his criticism of settlement projects, particularly in the strategically sensitive area of the West Bank known as E1. If the Israeli authorities go through with plans to develop that area, it will be “very difficult to square with a two-state solution,” he said.
Still, Obama did not explicitly call for a halt as a condition for talks to resume.