President Barack Obama voiced opposition on Thursday to Israeli settlement building but pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand for a freeze before Middle East peace talks can resume.
After an effusive welcome in Israel, Obama travelled to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where disillusioned Palestinians held out little hope that their moment in the spotlight of a U.S. presidential visit would help revive the peace process.
At a joint news conference with Abbas, Obama said he had “been clear” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington did not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive to “the cause of peace”.
But Obama stopped short of calling for a halt to settlement expansion - a demand he had made early in his first term - and signalled his frustration over the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to find a way to resume talks stalled since 2010.
However, he offered no new ideas on how to get the two sides negotiating again at a time when prospects for a peace deal are grim in a region roiled by the West’s nuclear standoff with Iran and the bloody civil war in Syria.
“What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations,” he said.
“My argument is even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities that the other side thinks is a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get an agreement,” Obama said.