During his first four years in office, Obama had sided with the Palestinians on the issue. He and his surrogates repeatedly have demanded that all settlement activity cease. However, when Israel reluctantly declared a 10-month moratorium on construction, the Palestinians balked at returning to negotiations until shortly before it expired and talks foundered shortly thereafter.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 war — but are ready for minor adjustments to accommodate some settlements closest to Israel. 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 four years ago.
Obama’s comments in Ramallah echoed those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for the Palestinians to drop preconditions for re-launching the stalled peace talks. Obama’s remarks were sure to reinforce deep skepticism among Palestinians about whether he is willing or able to use US influence to push Israel on key issues.
In what appeared to be an attempt to blunt such criticism, Obama used his speech to the Israeli students to appeal to their love of freedom, respect for human rights and common values with Americans to do the right thing.
He offered profuse praise for Israel’s history as a haven for refugees fleeing social and religious persecution. He hailed the technological innovations made by Israeli scientists and engineers
Though he made no demands of Israel, he made clear he was seeking their cooperation and understanding as a friend, noting that it would be easier for him to avoid anything approaching criticism of Israel because of its very strong backing in Congress and among the American people.
‘‘Politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do that would be the easiest political path. But I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.’’
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Ramallah and Ian Deitch and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.