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.
President Obama's Mideast Trip
-Will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
-Plans to visit Israel's Holocaust memorial and the grave of Yitzhak Rabin
-Will deliver speech to Israeli students
-Will meet in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad
-Plans to visit Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity
-Will meet with King Abdullah
-Plans to visit Petra
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.
VOA's Michael Lipin contributed to this report from Washington.