Obama tells Israelis, Palestinians to negotiate

President Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas criticized Israel for building settlements in the West Bank.
Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas criticized Israel for building settlements in the West Bank.

JERUSALEM — President Barack 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 own leaders in the push for peace.

Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of more than 2,000 people, Obama offered a fervent, unsparing case for why a peace agreement was both 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 of peace.

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Yet it also attested to the intractable nature of Middle East peacemaking over the past decade. 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 tangible 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, in tones reminiscent of his own political campaigns at home. ‘‘You must create the change that you want to see.’’

Standing before a blue-and-white banner emblazoned with the emblem of the Israeli state — a menorah flanked by olive branches — Obama spoke of the past and the future, from the biblical story of Exodus and from Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, to Israel’s reputation as a high-tech incubator with an enthusiasm for social media.

‘‘Israel,’’ he said to prolonged applause, ‘‘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.’’


Obama’s warm reception, after a polite but formal welcome by Netanyahu, recalled a visit by the Israeli prime minister to Washington in May 2011. Netanyahu, after rebuffing a peace proposal by Obama, spoke to Congress, receiving 29 standing ovations.

This week, Obama avoided proposals but promised that his administration would do its part to advance the process. He is sending Secretary of State John Kerry back to Israel from Jordan on Saturday to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss next steps.

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 that the 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 somberly. ‘‘Both sides are going to have to think anew.’’

There are signs that Abbas may be ready to return to negotiations with the Israelis. A draft copy of his talking points for the session with Obama, obtained by The New York Times, suggested that he was prepared to soften his long-held demand that Netanyahu publicly halt all building of settlements in favor of private assurances.


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 to such development as a condition for peace talks to resume.

The senior official said that while Obama would continue to discourage building in areas like E1, there were other measures both sides could take to smooth the way for face-to-face talks. He declined to be specific.

‘‘I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise,’’ he said. ‘‘But it is important to be open and honest with one another.’’