Israel | National

Obama: Peace is possible

President Obama speaks to Israeli students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, March 21, 2013. (Uriel Sinai/Getty/JTA)
President Obama speaks to Israeli students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, March 21, 2013. (Uriel Sinai/Getty/JTA)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel and called for a renewed peace process in a speech to thousands of Israelis in Jerusalem.

In the centerpiece of his first presidential visit to Israel, Obama on Thursday stressed America’s “unbreakable” alliance with Israel and support for Israel in the face of mounting regional uncertainty, notably the threat of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and the instability sparked by the Arab Spring.

But Obama also made an assertive call for Israelis to pursue peace with the Palestinians, urging his audience to pressure their leaders to take the necessary risks that would ensure a two-state solution and Israel’s long-term security.

“Peace is possible,” Obama said. “I know it doesn’t seem that way. There will always be a reason to avoid risk, and there’s a cost for failure. There will always be extremists who provide an excuse to not act. And there is something exhausting about endless talks about talks, the daily controversies and grinding status quo.”

But, he continued, while negotiations will be necessary to get there, “there is little secret about where they must lead – two states for two peoples.”

Obama’s call for the establishment of “an independent and viable Palestine” received a sustained round of applause.

The president’s call for peace followed his account of his administration’s financial and political support for Israel along with his promise that they would continue. To vigorous applause, Obama reaffirmed that the United States is determined to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran by any means necessary.

“There remains time to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” he said. “That’s what America will do with clear eyes. Iran must know its time is not unlimited. Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

But the centerpiece of the speech was Obama’s insistent call for Israelis to take risks for peace, urging them to look at the world through Palestinian eyes, saying, “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own.” The president also noted settler violence against Palestinians, restricted freedom of movement and lack of access to farmlands as examples of the injustices Palestinians face.

“It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel,” Obama said, quoting former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we will lose it all.”

The speech came at the close of a day in which Obama met in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the meeting, Obama implied that a settlement freeze should not be a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“If the only way to begin the conversation is that we get everything right at the outset, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do we structure a state of Palestine and how do you provide Israel confidence about its security,” Obama said at a news conference following the meeting. “That’s not to say settlements are not important.”

Early in his first term, in 2009, Obama called on Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank; Israel partially acquiesced after initially resisting. Since that 10-month freeze expired, during which little diplomatic activity took place, Abbas has demanded another freeze in order to resume talks.

At Thursday’s news conference, Abbas did not explicitly call for a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, though he didn’t drop the call, either.

“We are asking nothing outside the framework of international agreements,” the Palestinian leader said. “It is the duty of Israel to at least halt the activity. Each side will know its territory” after peace talks are concluded.

Obama and Abbas both called for a two-state solution. Obama stressed that an agreement must come out of direct negotiations rather than other forums, an implicit criticism of Abbas’ request last year that the United Nations recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.

“We seek an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” Obama said. “The only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”

Obama also harshly criticized Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. In the hours before Obama traveled to Ramallah, several rockets fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli city of Sderot.

Earlier Thursday, Obama visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was also shown some recent Israeli high-tech innovations. Throughout his trip, in which he has not unveiled any new policy initiatives, Obama has labored to show his closeness to the Israeli people.

On Thursday night, Obama said, “I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. The only way for Israel to survive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of a viable and independent Palestine.”