Ramallah – Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians finally topped the agenda on the second day of US president Barack Obama's visit to the region, as he urged both sides to resume negotiations but also pushed the Palestinians to drop a longstanding demand that Israel halt illegal settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
Obama delivered two different messages, in tone and substance, to his two audiences on Thursday.
Speaking in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas, he urged the PA to drop its focus on settlements and return to talks without preconditions.
He criticised the settlement drive, calling it not "constructive" or "appropriate," though he stopped short of calling it illegal.
"Look to the future that you want for your own children, a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time."
- Barack Obama, US president
But he also said that the settlement issue should be resolved as part of negotiations - not beforehand.
"When everything is settled ahead of time, there is no point for negotiations," he said. "It's important to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides."
In Jerusalem a few hours later, Obama delivered an upbeat speech to a largely sympathetic audience of Israeli students.
He acknowledged that many of them might be "sceptical of peace," but urged them to demand that their political leaders "take risks".
"You must create the change that you want to see," he said. "Look to the future that you want for your own children, a future in which a Jewish, democratic state is protected and accepted, for this time and for all time."
It was an effort to speak to Israelis over the head of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who endorsed the "two-state solution" in a 2009 speech, but has since done little to make it a reality.
While, away from the convention centre in Jerusalem where Obama spoke, it was directed at a deeply divided Israeli public that recently installed another government with right-wing views on “the Palestinian issue.”
"The speech is no problem for Netanyahu unless Israelis buy into its core premise," wrote David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel. "How many of them did Obama move?"
Obama’s arrival in Ramallah was greeted with none of the easy banter and camaraderie that characterised his meetings with Netanyahu a day earlier.
He and Abbas attended a brief welcoming ceremony and then withdrew into the presidential compound for private talks, where Obama constantly referred to the Israeli prime minister by his nickname, Bibi, the Palestinian leader was only "President Abbas."
Sabri Saydam, senior Fatah official
Obama told reporters that it was time for the US to "think anew" about how to resolve the conflict, but offered no specific ideas. Instead he simply called on the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions, arguing that Israeli domestic politics make a settlement freeze rather unlikely.
"With respects to Israel, the politics there are complex," Obama said. "If the only way to even begin the conversations is that we get everything right at the outset … then we're never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you actually structure a state of Palestine?"
His point was axiomatic. A final-status agreement, with clearly defined borders, would of course bring an end to settlement growth.
But the Palestinians have long argued that they cannot negotiate with Israel while it continues to devour the land earmarked for their future state.
In an interview last week, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, described a settlement freeze as "not [a] Palestinian demand but an Israeli obligation". Abbas reiterated his point on Thursday.
"It is not only our view that settlements are illegal, it is a view shared by the international community," Abbas said.
"In the 1970s and 1980s, more than 13 resolutions were handed down by the United Nations General Assembly, not only condemning settlements but also calling for their end."
In the absence of any negotiations, then, Obama's insistence that the Palestinians drop their demand for a settlement freeze could almost be seen as a green light for Israel to keep building.
'Believe in miracles'
Settlements only came up once in Obama's Jerusalem speech, when he called them "counterproductive to the cause of peace".
Mostly he opted for soaring rhetoric - about the ties between the US and Israel, and his personal admiration for Israel.
Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic News Agency
"No matter how great the challenges are, their idealism, their energy, and their ambition always gives me hope," he said.
He quoted David Ben Gurion, the country’s first president, who once said "in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles."
"Peace is possible," Obama said. "Peace is just … put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own."
Obama said he chose to address students, rather than the Israeli parliament, because he wanted to speak directly to the next generation of Israelis.
His words were well received. He was interrupted once by a heckler who asked whether Obama had "come here for peace or to give more weapons to Israel," but otherwise the audience was enthusiastic, interrupting every few sentences to applaud.
Obama’s optimism might prove a tough sell outside of the convention hall, though.
Younger Israelis tend to be more conservative than their parents. A 2011 survey of Jewish-Israeli teenagers conducted by the Dahaf Institute found that 62 percent described themselves as right-wing, while only 12 percent identified as liberal.
Asked to choose between having a "strong leader" and one who respects the rule of law, 60 percent chose the former.
|Obama constantly referred to the Israeli PM by his nickname, Bibi, the Palestinian leader was only 'President Abbas' [Reuters]
Election-day polling in January found that right-wing parties like Likud and Jewish Home, which have shown little interest in negotiating with the Palestinians, performed slightly better among young Israelis than the general population.
Reactions to the speech from Israel's political class were equally mixed. Tzipi Livni, who will head any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in Israel's new government, called it "important and inspiring".
But Obama’s call to action was panned by many on the right, albeit politely.
Dani Dayan, a former chairman of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing settlers, called Obama's two-state vision "utopian".
Naftali Bennett, the head of Jewish Home, said that Obama spoke out of "true friendship" with Israel, but dismissed his call for a Palestinian state.
"A Palestinian path is not the right way," he wrote on Facebook. "The time has come for creative new solutions."