Obama pleads to Israel for settlement trade-off

THE US President has delivered an impassioned appeal for Israel to recognise that compromise will be necessary to achieve its lasting security, just hours after militants again underscored its vulnerability by firing rockets into a southern border town.

Barack Obama said Israel must also take steps to reverse an “undertow” of international isolation that is worsened by its failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

Reminding an audience of Israeli university students the United States is their country’s best friend and most important ally, Mr Obama said the US will never back down on its commitment to Israel’s defence, particularly against threats such as the one posed by Iran and its nuclear programme.

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“As long as there is a United States of America, you are not alone,” he told a packed audience who erupted frequently with standing ovations at Jerusalem’s convention centre

The applause continued even as Mr Obama stressed Israel must make peace with the Palestinians if it is to ensure its survival and long-term viability as a homeland for the Jewish people.

Israeli occupation of areas that the Palestinians claim for their own state must end, and progress toward creating that Palestinian state will help Israel’s relations with the rest of the world, notably in its Arab-dominated neighbourhood, he said.

“Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation,” he said. Whereas once Israel could feel at ease by keeping good relations with Arab autocrats, the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have made broader outreach, especially on the Palestinian issue, an imperative, he added.

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“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and their justice must also be recognised. 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, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements ... every single day.”

Mr Obama also said Israeli children have a right to sleep soundly at night without fear of rocket attacks and that Israel has a right to exist that many of its neighbours refuse to recognise. He said Israel had taken risks for peace and that Palestinian leaders have at times missed historic opportunities.

He made no explicit demands of Israel but said its people should understand that specific actions, notably ongoing construction of Jewish housing on disputed territory, can hurt the chances for restarting stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, who have made a halt to such building a demand for returning to negotiations.

“Israelis must recognise that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn,” he said. “No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda, but progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.”

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Earlier in the West Bank, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama said the United States continues to oppose the construction of Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians but stressed that issues of disagreement between the two sides should not be used as an “excuse” to do nothing.

Mr Abbas and other Palestinian officials said they would not drop the demand, however, noting much of the world considers the settlements to be illegal and not merely an impediment to peace.

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.