Obama: ‘We cannot give up on the search for peace’

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U.S. President Barack Obama visited the West Bank on Thursday, stressing the need for direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution.

“The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it,” Obama said at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Palestinians deserve a future of hope,” he said. “Palestinians deserve a state of their own.”

Obama said he and Abbas discussed, among other things, settlements and issue of Palestinian prisoners. He reiterated that “we cannot give up on the search for peace.”

He called for shunning the old habits, arguments and formulas that have stymied the peace process and envisioned “two nations, two neighbors at peace, Israel and Palestine.”

The core issue right now, Obama said, is achieving sovereignty for Palestinians and security for Israel.

Obama said that Hamas, which governs Gaza, “has the responsibility to prevent” violations of a cease-fire with Israel, such as the firing of two rockets Thursday morning from Gaza into southern Israel.

The present cease-fire after last year’s fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, he said, protects both Israelis and Palestinians.

“It would be easy for (Israel) to say, ‘You see this is why we can’t have peace, because we can’t afford to have kids sleeping in their beds and suddenly a rocket comes through the roof,’ ” Obama said.

Abbas said that his meeting with Obama in Ramallah was “an opportunity to focus on our side” of what he said were the risks that Israeli settlements represent to a two-state solution, and on Palestinians’ desire for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners.

Abbas said that settlements are “more than a hurdle to peace.” He said settlements and settlement activity are illegal and it is the duty of Israel to at least stop the activity. He added that the Israeli government should listen to people in Israel critical of the settlements.

Palestinians believe peace “is necessary and inevitable,” Abbas said, and it should not be made through violence, occupation, walls, denial of refugee rights, as well as settlements — reciting a list of Palestinian grievances toward Israel.

The trip comes on the heels of Obama’s visit with Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, where the two leaders reached common ground on issues such as Iran’s nuclear progress and Israel’s right to defend itself.

But the longtime deadlock over an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement remains.

The elusive peace agreement

During his first trip to Israel as president, Obama said his Middle East tour is intended to address the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians over how to live next to one another.

While Obama was in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Palestinian activists erected a tent city outside Jerusalem in the West Bank to protest his visit and continued Israeli construction of settlements in the West Bank.

The sticky topic of settlements never came up at the news conference by the leaders, showing the sensitivity of the issue.

“I purposely did not want to come here with some big announcement” that might not match up with reality on the ground, Obama told reporters.

In his first term, Obama got off to a rocky start with Netanyahu by pushing for a freeze on Israeli settlements.

White House officials said Obama was not bringing a new peace initiative and lacked optimism that enough solid ground existed to try to revive direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the declared goal of both sides for separate, neighboring states.

Talks with Israel

On Wednesday, Obama and Netanyahu offered a “good cop-bad cop” approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama called for more diplomacy while endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit.

With the visit, Obama sought to assure Netanyahu and Israelis of his commitment to their security and strengthen what has been a strained personal and working relationship with the prime minister. The two are each beginning new terms in power.

In what Netanyahu called a key development, the leaders announced new talks on extending U.S. military assistance to Israel for another 10 years past the current agreement that expires in 2017.

They also sounded united on other major issues.

Both countries have accused Iran of secretly working toward building a nuclear weapon, and Netanyahu it made clear Wednesday after his talks with Obama that he believes the president is equally committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama pushed at a joint news conference for continued diplomatic efforts, including negotiations and sanctions, intended to get Iran to comply with international safeguards against nuclear arms.

At the same time, he insisted that “all options” remain open — code for a military strike to disable the Iranian program.

Obama also made clear that Israel has the right to defend itself as it sees fit, which amounted to a diplomatic signal that Washington would not stop a unilateral Israeli strike at some future point if no progress occurred.

Netanyahu responded with thanks, saying Obama spoke of “the great transformation that has occurred in the life of the Jewish people with a rebirth of the Jewish state” that has grown from a once powerless population into a nation that has “both the right and the capability” to defend itself.

“I know that you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend than the United States of America,” Netanyahu added.

Both leaders also said they had a “common assessment” on how much time remained before Iran could build a nuclear weapon. But Netanyahu indicated his “red line” for action might be sooner, referring to what he called a “point of immunity” when Tehran completed enriching enough uranium for a weapon.

Iran has rebuffed calls to halt its production of enriched uranium, saying it has a right to produce peaceful nuclear energy. But the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has said it can no longer verify any peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Most Americans consider Israel an ally or at least friendly to the United States, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday.

However, respondents split — 49%-49% — on whether the United States should support Israel if it unilaterally attacks Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the survey showed.

CNN’s John King and Jessica Yellin reported from Israel; Tom Cohen wrote in Washington. CNN’s Joe Sterling, Holly Yan and Paul Steinhauser also contributed to this report.

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