President Barack Obama appealed directly on Thursday to the Israeli people to put themselves in the shoes of stateless Palestinians and recognise that Jewish settlement activity in occupied territory hurts prospects for peace.
In a showcase speech in Jerusalem to Israeli university students, Obama coupled his plea with an acknowledgement of the Jewish state’s security concerns in a region destabilised by the West’s nuclear standoff with Iran and civil war in Syria.
But he urged Israel’s younger generation to demand that their politicians take risks for peace in an address interrupted frequently by applause, including a standing ovation for the president during a brief outburst by a heckler.
“You must create the change that you want to see,” he told his youthful audience.
Obama, on his first official visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank, said only peace could bring true security, but he did not offer any new ideas on how to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, stalled since 2010.
“Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine,” he said.
It was a clear warning that Israel’s continued hold over the West Bank, territory captured along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, would ultimately lead to an Arab majority in land controlled by the Jewish state.
“Israelis must recognise that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable, that real borders will have to be drawn,” Obama said, stopping short of calling for a construction freeze.
“Put yourself in their (Palestinians’) shoes. Look at the world through their eyes,” he said. “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”
Obama has received an effusive welcome in Israel since his arrival on Wednesday, hoping to reset his often troubled relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear Iran,” he told his enthusiastic audience, reinforcing a main theme of his visit to Israel and adding that Washington and its allies still thought there was time for a diplomatic solution.