Although he was not specific, President Barack Obama revealed today that he has “suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for [peace] talks” with the Palestinians.
In the major address of his three-day visit to Israel, Obama told 600 Israeli students in Jerusalem that the time is ripe to renew peace talks and promised that “so long as there is a United States of America, you are not alone.”
With that pledge of support in both Hebrew and English, he asked the students at the International Convention Center to “put aside the plans and process” for achieving peace and to concentrate first on what can be done to “build trust between people.”
Then he asked them to “take a risk for peace.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is traveling with Obama, is slated to return to Israel after the two travel to Jordan for a one-day trip tomorrow. It is unclear whether he will then seek to take steps leading to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
In his remarks, Obama said that in asking the students to take a risk for peace he was speaking to them as a “friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future.”
“I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see. … Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out.”
There is “little secret,” he said, about where negotiations with the Palestinians would lead: “two states for two peoples.”
The days when Arab states could “condemn Israel to distract their people from a lack of opportunity are over,” Obama said in calling upon them to take steps to normalize relations with Israel.
“Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have a right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable – that real borders will have to be drawn.”
Prior to his speech, Obama met for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. In the meeting, Abbas spokesman said Abbas had repeated what he has said in recent years, that peace talks with Israel cannot begin without a settlement freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
At a later joint press conference, Obama agreed that he did not consider “continued settlement activity to be constructive,” but went on to say that if both sides are “constantly negotiating about what’s required to get into talks in the first place, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you eventually structure a state of Palestine.”
“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,” he added, abandoning his previous support for Abbas’ demand.
In his address to the students, Obama said that he had just met a group of Palestinians 15 to 22-years-old and that they “were not different from my daughters or your daughters and sons. I honestly believe if every Israeli parent sat down with these kids they would say I want them to succeed and prosper just like my kids.”
“Peace is necessary,” he said to applause. “Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can 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 endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
Early in his speech, Obama recalled the Jewish people’s roots in Israel, saying he had been “witness to the ancient history of the Jewish people at the Shrine of the Book,” which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. And he said that while Jews had “achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be free people in your homeland.”
Later, he said the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justce must be recognized. 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 and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. … Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
“Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians – you will define the future of Israel as well.”
Obama said Israelis are today at a “crossroads” and that it might be tempted to pursue an isolationist course, relying for protection on the barriers it has erected along its borders and its Iron Dome anti-missile system. But “given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.”
In his address, he also spoke of the Jewish people’s roots in the land and praised its innovations, hi-tech advances, 10 Nobel laureates and ability to connect to the global economy. But he said he believes Israel’s “potential for prosperity can be enhanced with greater security and a lasting peace.”
Therefore, he argued, it is necessary to open a dialogue with the Palestinians – not with those “dedicated to its destruction” but with Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, whom he said are true partners for peace.
“Over the last few years they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few would have imagined a decade ago,” he said. So many Palestinians – including young people – have rejected violence as a means of achieving their aspirations.”
Obama said also that Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb is a threat not only to Israel but a “danger to the entire world, including the United States. It would raise the risk of nuclear terrorism, undermine the non-proliferation regime, spark an arms race in a volatile region and embolden a government that has shown no respect for the rights of its own people or the responsibilities of nations.”
He said that although diplomacy was the preferred way to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, “Iran must know time is not unlimited. … All options are on the table for achieving our objectives. … America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Regarding Syria, Obama said its president, Bashar Assad, “must go so that Syria’s future can begin.” He also warned that Syria would be held accountable if it used chemical weapons against its own people or tried to transfer them to terrorists.
And he used the occasion to call upon all nations that “value justice to call Hezbollah what it is – a terrorist organization.” He said it was responsible for killing five Israelis on a bus in Bulgaria “who were blown up because of where they came from.”
“The world cannot tolerate an organization that murders innocent civilians, stockpiles rockets to shoot at cities, and supports the massacre of men, women and children in Syria,” Obama said.