— U.S. President Barack Obama told an audience of young Israelis Thursday that they are "not alone" in facing threats to Israel's security, while urging them to pursue peace with the Palestinians as the "only path to true security."
In a speech to university students in Jerusalem, Obama spoke at length about the Jewish people's historic yearnings for freedom in their own land and the values shared by Americans and Israelis.
Obama also said that as a friend who is "deeply committed" to Israel's future, he believes Israelis can only keep their nation Jewish and democratic if they agree to an "independent and viable" state of Palestine.
President Obama said Israeli leaders must recognize that "continued settlement activity" on land the Palestinians claim for a state is "counterproductive." Obama also said he believes Israel has a genuine peace partner in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama met Abbas in Ramallah earlier in the day where he called on Israelis and Palestinians to begin peace talks on core issues of their conflict without waiting for those disputes to be resolved in advance.
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"I understand that the status quo isn't really a status quo because the situation on the ground continues to evolve and makes it harder to reach a two state solution, and I know that the Palestinian people are deeply frustrated," he said.
"So one of my main messages today, the same message I am conveying in Israel, is that we cannot give up, we cannot give up on the search for peace no matter how hard it is," said Obama.
The president praised Abbas for institution building in the West Bank, which he said stands in stark contrast to Gaza, where he said Hamas continues to refuse to renounce violence and enforces "rigid dogmas."
President Abbas called the issue of Israeli settlements, which he said the world recognizes as illegal, a continuing major hurdle blocking a two state solution.
"It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity, so that we can speak of issues, and when we define our borders and their borders together, each side will know its territory in which it can do whatever it pleases," he said.
Abbas said younger Palestinians no longer trust the two state solution. If peace with Israel can be achieved, he said, Israel knows that Arab and Islamic states would immediately recognize the state of Israel.
Obama condemned the firing of rockets Thursday into southern Israel from Gaza, saying such attacks bolster Israeli concerns about any peace deal. Abbas was quoted as issuing a statement condemning attacks on civilians.
He also said he made clear to Israeli leaders that continued settlement activity does not advance the cause of peace.
But he emphasized to both sides the importance of pushing through disagreements to get to direct talks.
"What I shared with President Abbas and I will share with the Palestinian people is that 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," he said. "So, I think it is important for us to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides."
Obama also said he wants to ensure that all parties get to "core issues" and try to rebuild confidence and trust.
Part of the goal of his trip, he said, is to assess how Israeli leaders and President Abbas would structure a potential path back to direct negotiations. He said incremental steps that serve to delay discussion of fundamental issues, rather than help to shape a broad-based agreement, will only extend the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, right, upon his arrival at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, March 22, 2013.
Obama tours the Hall of Names during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013. With him are Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
President Obama with Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, left, after visiting the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, March 22, 2013.
Obama shares a laugh with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during an official state dinner hosted by Israel's President Shimon Peres (not pictured) in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013.
Members of the audience listen as President Obama delivers a speech on Mideast policy at the Jerusalem Convention Center, March 21, 2013.
Obama interacts with children as he tours the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, March 22, 2013.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walks with Obama at the Muqata Presidential Compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, March 21, 2013.
President Obama lays a wreath at the grave of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem March 22, 2013.
Rows of police officers on standby during Obama's visit in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 21, 2013.
President Obama shakes hands with Israeli children as he is welcomed in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013.
U.S. President Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak with greeters at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, March 20, 2013.
Israeli soldiers walk towards their positions as they prepare for an official ceremony to welcome President Obama at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, March 20, 2013.
Posters calling for Obama to free Jonathan Pollard from a U.S. prison on display in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013.
VOA's Michael Lipin contributed to this report from Washington.