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Obama Speaks Loftily, but Betrays Palestinian Demands on Israeli Settlements

Obama urges Israelis to "look through eyes" of Palestinians, but finds his own advice hard to follow

- Jon Queally, staff writer

In a televised press conference from the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, President Obama sparred with PA President Mahmoud Abbas over Israeli settlements and dismayed many Palestinians by denying the central role that the continued illegal construction has on the ability for meaningful peace talks to resume.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leave after a joint news conference at the Muqata presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 21, 2013. Obama said on Thursday that settlement building in the occupied West Bank did not "advance the cause of peace", but stopped short of demanding a construction freeze to enable negotiations to resume. (REUTERS/Ammar Awad) "The core issue right now is how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and security for Israeli people," Obama said.

"That's not to say settlements aren't important. That's to say if we solve those two problems, the settlement issue will be resolved," he added.

President Abbas, however, responding in a tone that the Ma'an new agency described as "defiant," pushed back by saying that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate while Israel continued to build homes in the occupied territories was something fundamental to the principle of sovereignty and that this position was widely supported by the international community.

"It isn't just our perception that settlements are illegal. It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution," said Abbas.

"We are asking for nothing outside the international legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to halt settlement activities so we can at least speak."

He added: "We hope that the Israeli government understands this. We hope they listen to the many opinions inside Israel itself speaking of the illegality of settlements."

Earlier in the day, while addressing Israeli students and gathered dignitaries at a university in Jerusalem, Obama challenged the Israeli settlements but fell short of renewing his call for a "freeze" on construction.

"I've been clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leadership that," Obama said, "... [the U.S.] does not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace."

But as The Guardian's Mideast editor Ian Black observed:

‘Counter-productive’ isn’t a very strong word. It is on the settlement issue that Obama has famously failed in his confrontation with Netanyahu ... We didn’t see him repeat that demand that settlements be frozen, but he made no bones about the fact that it was urgent to restart those talks. I don’t think there were any messages in that that would have seriously discomfited the Israeli government.

And though Obama once again promised unwavering US support for Israel, he also asked Israelis to try to see the conflict through the eyes of Palestinians.

"Put yourself in their (Palestinians') shoes. Look at the world through their eyes," Obama 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."

Despite thoughtful phrasing such as this, not all Palestinians were comforted by the words that seldom live up to the action—stronger pressure applied to Israel, for example—they believe is necessary.

As Ma'an News reports:

Palestinian analysts had not predicted any progress from the visit.

Muhammad Jadallah, a Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, told Ma’an that "We are a nation that welcomes all visitors but it looks like the Palestinians are not satisfied with Mr Obama’s visit."

"They don’t respect him, and he is the worst US president. He used the (UN Security Council) veto to help the settlements and used it again against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"For these reasons we can’t welcome the president, and we can’t consider him a peacemaker just because he got a Nobel prize for peace -- he didn’t bring any peace during his presidency."

He added: "After every visit of a US president to our land, we watch peace slip further away."

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