RAMALLAH – US President Barack Obama said Thursday he was not giving up on stalled peace talks in the Mideast but that continued Israeli settlement-building in West Bank is not helping the cause.
Still, Obama suggested that Palestinians should not make it a condition to resuming peace negotiations with Israel. He says there's no point to negotiations if the expectation is that everything must be figured out in advance.
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"We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace," Obama said. 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's comments echoed those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for the Palestinians to drop their "preconditions" for re-launching the peace talks. The US president's remarks are sure to reinforce skepticism among Palestinians that Obama is ready, willing or able to use US influence to press Israel into making concessions on a matter they have identified as a top priority.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, appearing alongside Obama at a news conference in Ramallah, West Bank, said Israel must stop illegal settlement building to advance peace talks.
"We are not claiming anything that is illegitimate or illegal," Abbas said in Arabic. "Therefore, we require the Israeli government to stop settlements in order to discuss all our issues and their concerns."
Obama in Ramallah (Photo: AFP)
Obama said 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.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
Abbas said he told the American leader that peace with Israel should not be achieved through violence, occupation, settlements, arrests or denial of refugee rights. The remarks amounted to a list of grievances against Israel.
Obama was visiting the West Bank on his second day of a Mideast trip after spending a day in Jerusalem. He said he spoke of the settlements during meetings with Netanyahu.
Palestinians argue they cannot negotiate a border between Israel and a future Palestine while Israel unilaterally shapes that line through accelerated settlement building.
Abbas reiterated a desire for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - territories Israel captured in the 1967 war. 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.
Abbas condemns rocket fire
The meeting was held several hours after rocket fire from Gaza resumed, with one rocket hitting the backyard of a house in the southern Israeli city of Sderot. The Palestinian president's political advisor, Nimar Hamed, said that Abbas condemned the rocket fire.
"We condemn violence against civilians, no matter where it originates," Abbas was quoted as saying. "We are in favor of establishing mutual and comprehensive calm in the Gaza Strip, and therefore I supported the agreement Hamas and Israel reached through Egyptian mediation."
Palestinian news agency covered a protest held during the Obama-Abbas meeting, in which hundreds of Palestinians expressed their anger over the visit. One of them hurled a shoe at Obama's picture and urged him to "leave Palestine." Another declared, "I want to return to my forefathers' village," referring to the right of return.
Earlier Thursday, the American president visited a special exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where he viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls and Israeli technological innovations.
Several anti-Obama protests were held in Ramallah in recent days ahead of the visit, raising concerns among Palestinian security forces and American security guards of plans to create a provocation.
Obama was greeted at the Muqata to the sounds of a military orchestra, which escorted a presidential guard procession. All Palestinian ministers arrived to welcome the American president.
More than 100 reporters from all over the world arrived at the Muqataa in the early morning hours ahead of the Obama-Abbas meeting. The president held a short meeting with an extended American-Palestinian team before sitting down with Abbas for about half an hour.
At the end of the press conference, Obama was expected to leave the Muqataa for a visit at a young people's center in al-Bireh, where he will meet with Palestinian youth accompanied by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He is expected to return to Jerusalem in the afternoon hours.
An Israeli state official responded to the rocket fire Thursday morning, saying that "the Israeli response will come at the right time and at the right place."
Addressing the Abbas-Obama meeting, the official added: "It will be interesting to see whether the Palestinian Authority chairman, who did not condemn the rocket fire throughout Operation Pillar of Defense, will do it today.
"It's also interesting to see if this rocket fire, carried out from an area controlled by Hamas, will prompt the PA chairman to halt the unity talks he has been holding with a terror organization calling for Israel's destruction."
Reuters and Roi Kais contributed to this report
You can contact Elior Levy, Ynet's Palestinian Affairs Correspondent, at: email@example.com