Obama pleas for peace in Israel

US president mounts new bid to relaunch Mideast talks

President Barack Obama waves to the crowed at the end of his speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center today. Photograph:  Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

President Barack Obama waves to the crowed at the end of his speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center today. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


MARK WEISS in Jerusalem

US President Barack Obama has made an impassioned plea to the Israel i public to pressure their leaders to make peace and ensure the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.

Addressing 600 enthusiastic university students in Jerusalem today he stressed that peace is possible, despite all the difficulties, but Israel’s occupation of the West Bank must end if there is to be lasting peace and security for the Jewish state.

“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”

He was continuously interrupted with applause from the dovish audience, chosen in advance by the US embassy. One student was evicted after he heckled the president, shouting “free Palestine.”

Mr Obama repeated comments he made the previous day that the US will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, but most of his speech was devoted to the need to make an historic compromise with the Palestinians.

“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”

He described the current Palestinian leadership as true partners for peace, and he made it clear the US will stand by Israel if it takes the risks required for peace.

“Make no mistake: 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. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a Un ited States of America, you are not alone.”

Earlier, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah after talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama said he supports an “independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people.”

However, he made it clear that he supported the Israeli position that peace talks should resume without preconditions, rejecting the Palestinian argument that meaningful negotiations can only take place after Israel stops settlement construction.

He criticised Israeli settlement expansion, but stressed there’s no point to negotiations if the expectation is that everything must be figured out in advance.

“We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” Mr Obama said. However, he added, “the politics in Israel are complex and I recognise that is not an issue that’s going to be solved immediately, it’s not going to be solved overnight. ”

Mr Abbas criticised Israeli actions, and said that the world recognises that settlements are illegal and that many Palestinians “do not trust the two-state solution anymore” as a result.

“Peace should not be made through violence, occupation, settlements, arrests, siege,” and the denial of the rights of refugees, he said.

In contrast to the warmth shown by Israeli leaders during the Obama visit, Mr Abbas looked rather tense.

The Palestinian street has been largely apathetic with the prevailing view that there will be no diplomatic movement without direct American pressure on Israel. A few hundred people protested against the visit, criticising Mr Obama as being pro-Israel.

His West Bank visit came only a few hours after five rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel. One hit the back yard of a home in the border town of Sderot, causing damage but no injuries.

The attacks were condemned by both Mr Abbas and Mr Obama.

Israel said it would respond “at an appropriate time and place,” and closed border crossings to Gaza shortly after the attack.

Mr Obama wraps up his Middle East visit tomorrow with a trip to Jerusalem’s mount Herzl cemetery where he will lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.

After visiting the Yad Vashem holocaust museum he will travel to Bethlehem to visit the church of the Nativity, and then fly to Jordan, his last stop, for talks with King Abdallah.