President Barack Obama on Thursday urged Israelis and Palestinians to get back to peace talks but offered no new ideas on how they might do so, essentially abandoning his previous support of the Palestinian demand for Israel to halt settlement activity before negotiations resume.
In remarks likely to disappoint, if not infuriate, the Palestinians, Obama said the United States continues to oppose the construction of Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians but stressed that issues of disagreement between the two sides should not be used as an "excuse" to do nothing. He said there would be no point to negotiations if differences had to be resolved before they start.
"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," Obama told reporters at a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank.
"I think we can keep pushing through some of these problems and make sure that we don't use them as an excuse not to do anything," he said.
Obama's comments echoed those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for the Palestinians to drop their "preconditions" for re-launching the peace talks. The U.S. president's remarks are sure to reinforce skepticism among Palestinians that Obama is ready, willing or able to use U.S. influence to press Israel into making concessions on a matter they have identified as a top priority.
During his first four years in office, Obama had sided with the Palestinians on the issue. He and his surrogates repeatedly demanded that all settlement activity cease. However, when Israel reluctantly declared a 10-month moratorium on construction, the Palestinians balked at returning to the table.
"We require the Israeli government to stop settlements in order to discuss all our issues and their concerns," Abbas said in the appearance, which was an integral part of Obama's brief visit to the West Bank on the second day of his Mideast visit.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 war — but 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.
Obama said he told Netanyahu "we do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace." But, he added, "the politics there are complex and I recognize that is not an issue that's going to be solved immediately, it's not going to be solved overnight."
Obama suggested that Palestinians should not make halting the settlements a condition to resuming peace negotiations with Israel.
He did say that Palestinians deserve an independent and sovereign state and an end to occupation by Israel. He said the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state of Israel continues to exist if negotiations would restart.
"I absolutely believe that it is still possible, but I think it is very difficult," Obama said. He also said it would be helpful if rockets weren't still being launched into Israel.
In downtown Ramallah, several dozen people protested against what is perceived here as a strong U.S. bias in favor of Israel.
Obama "should take immediate action to stop settlement activity because the passivity of his position toward settlements is happening while the very last option of a two-state solution is being killed by Israeli settlements," said Mustafa Barghouti, a leading Palestinian activist.
On Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed the unwavering U.S. commitment to Israel's security and noted there had been no fatal attacks on Israelis from the West Bank last year, which is controlled by Abbas.
That calm has not extended to Gaza, which is run by the militant Islamic Hamas movement. As Obama began his program Thursday, Israeli police said militants in Gaza had fired two rockets at the southern town of Sderot.
One of the rockets exploded in the courtyard of a house in Sderot early in the morning, causing damage but no injuries, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. The other landed in an open field. Sirens wailed in Sderot shortly after the 7 a.m. rocket attack, forcing residents on their way to work or school to run to bomb shelters.
Obama condemned the action during his news conference with Abbas. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited the border town, which is frequently targeted by rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israel, prompting Israel, with considerable U.S. assistance, to develop its Iron Dome missile defense system, which it credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets.
Immediately after his arrival in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured an Iron Dome battery at Ben Gurion International Airport in a vivid display of U.S. security assistance to Israel.
In Jerusalem earlier Thursday, while examining the Dead Sea Scrolls and during a tour of a high tech exhibit, Obama and Netanyahu continued the easy banter that the two leaders displayed on Wednesday. As Netanyahu read a facsimile of a scroll, Obama marveled that the Hebrew language had not changed much over the centuries.
Lee reported from Jerusalem. Karin Laub in Ramallah and Ian Deitch and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.