US President Barack Obama insisted on Thursday a two-state solution was still viable, but disappointed his Palestinian hosts by failing to take a clear stance on freezing settlement activity.
On the second day of a historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Obama travelled to the West Bank’s political capital to face an audience disappointed by his failure to meet expectations that he could help deliver them a state.
There he held a long meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas who told him there would be no return to negotiations while Israel continues to build on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
After a brief flight from Jerusalem, crossing the barbed wire fences and walls of the Israeli separation barrier, Obama’s Marine One helicopter touched down under a blazing sun, kicking up a cloud of dust in the Muqataa presidential compound.
On his first visit to the Holy Land since taking the White House in 2009, Obama was quick to take aim at the disappointment over his first term in office, insisting Washington remained “deeply committed” to realising the creation of an independent Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Abbas, Obama insisted that the two-state solution was still viable, saying the Palestinian people “deserve an end to the occupation.”
“Based on the conversations I’ve had with president Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… the possibility continues to exist for a two-state solution,” he said, countering claims it was no longer possible due to the pace of Israel’s settlement construction.
“The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own,” he said.
Although he was quick to identify settlement construction as unhelpful to peace efforts, he steered clear of the question of a new settlement freeze.
“We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” he said.
Direct peace talks broke off in late September 2010, just weeks after they were launched with the Palestinians refusing to continue talking while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.
Israel has said it is ready for an immediate resumption of talks, but insists it will only talk if there are no pre-conditions attached.
On the question of a new settlement freeze, Obama appeared to sidestep the issue, saying: If each party “is constantly negotiating about what’s required to get into talks in the first place, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you actually structure a state of Palestine.”
But during the talks, Abbas insisted there could be no negotiations without a freeze, his political adviser Nimr Hammad told AFP shortly after Obama’s departure.
“A resumption of negotiations is not possible without an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem,” Hammad said.
At the press conference, Abbas said peace needed “political courage” but also good faith to work.
“Peace is not forged through violence and occupation and walls, and not by denying the rights of refugees.”
Obama also condemned the “continuing threat” of rocket fire from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip after two rockets slammed into southern Israel.
“We condemn this violation of this important ceasefire that protects both Israelis and Palestinians, a violation that Hamas has a responsibility to prevent,” he said of a ceasefire deal which ended eight days of bloodshed in November.
Abbas too condemned the rocket fire.
“We condemn violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets,” he was quoted as saying by Hammad.
Protesters also made a showing in Ramallah where around 150 could be seen trying to get into the Muqataa shouting: “Obama, you’re not welcome here!” and: “Obama, get out of Ramallah!”
Obama says he has not come with any concrete initiative for restarting peace talks but “to listen” to both sides about how to move forward.
“Ultimately, this is a really hard problem,” Obama said during a news conference with the Israeli prime minister on Wednesday.
In an op-ed published on Wednesday, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath urged Obama to prove his commitment to a two-state solution by turning pledges into deeds.
“Now, rather than calling for the resumption of a meaningless ‘peace process,’ we Palestinians expect real action on the ground.”
The Palestinians are hoping Obama will help broker the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel and also free up $700 million in blocked US aid.