Obama Asks Israelis and Palestinians to Talk Again ; by Not Insisting on Freeze in Settlement Activity, He Softens His Earlier Stance

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By not insisting on a freeze in settlement activity, he softens a stance he adopted toward Israel early in his first term.

President Barack Obama, speaking on Thursday first to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and then to young Israelis in Jerusalem, called on both sides for fresh thinking, greater understanding of the others' fears and concerns, and a new willingness to reach across the bitter divide separating them.

"If we're going to be successful, part of what we're going to have to do is get out of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress," Mr. Obama said in a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "Both sides are going to have to think anew."

Speaking on the second day of a four-day visit to the region, Mr. Obama appeared to move closer to the Israeli position on resuming long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, stopping short of repeating his insistence from early in his first term on a halt to Israel's settlement expansion.

Hours after rockets from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza hit southern Israel, Mr. Obama met with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and challenged both sides to resume face- to-face talks, pledging that the United States "would do our part."

The president condemned the rocket attacks, which broke a three- month cease-fire, but he insisted that the Israelis should not use violence as an excuse to avoid negotiations, no more than the Palestinians should insist that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a condition.

Mr. Abbas reiterated his demand that Israel halt settlement construction, but he did not explicitly cite that as a condition for entering into direct talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity, so we can speak of the issues," Mr. Abbas said in Arabic, speaking through an interpreter. "The issue of settlements is clear."

There were signs of a chillier welcome for Mr. Obama in the West Bank than he received a day earlier from the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem.

Still, his meeting with the Palestinian leader came amid new signs that Mr. Abbas is eager to return to negotiations with the Israelis. A draft copy of his talking points for the session with Mr. Obama, obtained by The New York Times, suggested that Mr. Abbas was ready to soften his long-held demand that Mr. Netanyahu halt all building of Jewish settlements as a precondition for the Palestinians returning to talks with the Israelis.

The peace process has basically been stalled since 2010. In that context, Mr. Obama seemed intent, in the major speech of his Israeli visit, on urging members of a younger generation to take a gamble on peace.

In a carefully crafted speech seen as the centerpiece of his first trip to Israel as president, Mr. Obama asked an audience of youthful Israelis in Jerusalem -- a generation who do not necessarily share the hardened views of their elders -- to empathize with their Israeli-occupied neighbors and "look at the world through their eyes." His reception was often enthusiastic; his address was often interrupted by applause.

Mr. Obama spoke of Israel's history and ideals and said he remained unquestionably committed to the country's security. But he also urged both sides to find ways to work together.

"I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, and that's a part of democracy and the discourse between our two countries," Mr. Obama said in the speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center. …

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