President Barack Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday to get back to peace talks but offered no new ideas on how they might do so, essentially abandoning his previous support of the Palestinian demand for Israel to halt settlement activity before negotiations resume.
In remarks likely to disappoint, if not infuriate, the Palestinians, Obama said the United States continues to oppose the construction of Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians but stressed that issues of disagreement between the two sides should not be used as an "excuse" to do nothing.
"If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there is no point for negotiations, so I think it is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides," Obama told reporters at a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
"My argument is that even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, maybe engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement," he said. "I think we can keep pushing through some of these problems and make sure that we don't use them as an excuse not to do anything."
Obama's comments echoed those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for the Palestinians to drop their preconditions for re-launching the stalled peace talks. The U.S. president's remarks are sure to reinforce deep skepticism among Palestinians about whether Obama is willing or able to use U.S. influence to press Israel into making concessions on a matter Palestinians have identified as a top priority.
Abbas and other Palestinian officials said they would not drop the demand, noting that much of the world considers the settlements to be outright illegal and not merely an impediment to peace talks.
"We require the Israeli government to stop settlements in order to discuss all our issues and their concerns," Abbas told the news conference, a marquee event during Obama's brief visit to the West Bank on the second day of his Mideast visit. "It's the duty of the Israeli government to stop the settlement activities to enable us to talk about the issues in the negotiations."