President Obama appealed directly to the Israeli public Thursday for compromise in long-stalled negotiations with their Palestinian neighbors, hoping to convince those skeptical of his commitment to the U.S. ally that “peace is possible.”
Obama spoke to a crowd of university students, a friendly audience of younger Israelis more open to his clarion call to restart talks with Palestine.
“Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes,” Obama said from the Jerusalem Convention Center. “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”
At times, Obama went into campaign mode, telling the crowd, “You must create the change that you want to see.”
The White House is hoping Obama can improve his standing with the Israeli public, and in the process, extract concessions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues ranging from Iran to settlements in the West Bank.
Still, Obama’s speech was heavy on rhetoric and light on policy prescriptions.
Though he called peace between Israel and Palestine “possible,” Obama conceded, “I can’t say it’s guaranteed. I can’t even say it’s more than likely.”
Earlier Thursday, Obama urged Palestine to return to the negotiating table with Israel for peace talks, saying demands over settlement of the West Bank should not be an “excuse” to halt all progress.
Obama said the United States still views Israeli settlement in the West Bank as a hindrance to peace, but the president also softened his previous support of the Palestinian insistence to halt settlements before negotiations resume.
“If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there is no point for negotiations, so I think it is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides,” Obama told reporters at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Such remarks are unlikely to play well with the Palestinian public, which already has soured on the president amid his inability to back up promises to move the peace talks forward.
And Abbas was not moved by Obama’s plea.
“We require the Israeli government to stop settlements in order to discuss all our issues and their concerns,” he told reporters. “It’s the duty of the Israeli government to stop the settlement activities to enable us to talk about the issues in the negotiations.”
Obama’s speech in Jerusalem was well received by the Israeli students, but at one point, a heckler protesting about Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel, interrupted him.
“I have to say we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home,” Obama quipped. “This is part of the lively debate that we talked about.”