President Barack Obama told Palestinians on Thursday that he does not support preconditions to peace negotiations, a reversal of a policy that helped deadlock peace talks during Obama’s first administration.
Speaking at a news conference in Ramallah, Obama indicated that Palestinians could not expect an Israeli settlement freeze ahead of talks. He said Israeli politics were “complex,” and that this is “not an issue that will be solved overnight.” If issues were made into preconditions to negotiations, he said, there was “no point in negotiations.”
Obama began his first term in office with a demand that Israel halt settlement construction to enable talks, a demand that the Palestinians adopted. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a partial freeze, the Palestinians said it was insufficient and refused to negotiate. U.S.-Israel ties deteriorated over the issue, and talks have been stuck since then.
This visit appears to mark a major adjustment in Obama’s policy toward Israel. Beginning with broad smiles aimed at Netanyahu and repeated use of the Israeli prime minister’s nickname, Bibi, and continuing with references to historic Jewish ties to the land, it is seen here as a charm offensive aimed at repairing the cold ties of Obama’s first term. Among Israelis, it seems to be working. Coverage of the president has been intense and adulatory.
The warmth visible in his meetings with Israelis, however, was not evident in Ramallah on Thursday. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, speaking next to Obama, opened by criticizing Israeli actions, and followed Obama’s statement by saying that the world recognizes that Israeli settlements are illegal and that many Palestinians “do not trust the two-state solution anymore” as a result.
“Peace should not be made through violence, occupation, settlements, arrests, siege,” and the denial of the rights of refugees, Abbas said.
Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti, speaking afterward to the BBC, criticized Obama for saying a settlement freeze is not a precondition for talks. He said there should be an “immediate freeze of this cancer that is eating the two-state solution.” He also said the current Israeli government is the “most racist and most extreme in the history of Israel.”
But the demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition appears no longer to have U.S. backing. In his statement, Obama said a solution to other core issues would also solve the question of settlements.
“If we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe the shape of a potential deal is there,” he said.
He also said he has “been clear” with Netanyahu that U.S. policy has long been that settlement activity is not “constructive” or “appropriate,” or “something that can advance the cause of peace.”
In other comments in Ramallah, Obama said young Palestinians and Israelis remind him of his daughters.
“There was a time when my daughters could not expect to have the same opportunites in their own country as someone else’s daughters,” he said, suggesting that if change can happen in the United States, it can happen here, too.
Obama said the U.S. wants an ”independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people, alongside the Jewish state of Israel.” Palestinians, he said, deserve an end to occupation and the indignities that come with it, and deserve freedom of movement.
“Put simply,” he says, “Palestinians deserve a state of their own.”
He reminded listeners that the United States is the Palestinians’ biggest donor, and blamed Hamas for “misery” in Gaza. The situation there, he said, came about “because Hamas refuses to renounce violence" and because "too often it focuses on tearing Israel down than building Palestine up.”
Obama also condemned the rocket fire from Gaza early Thursday, saying it was a “violation that Hamas had a responsibility to prevent.”