RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Obama met with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank on Thursday in search of hopeful signs for the stalled peace process and declared that a sovereign state of Palestine beside Israel is still viable.
Following a long meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama said he thinks the two-state solution could occur if both sides would “think anew” about long-standing arguments that have stalled peace talks.
If the expectation is that “we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time,” Obama said, “then there’s no point in negotiations.”
In what U.S. officials took as a hopeful sign, Abbas listened politely and even nodded a little as Obama talked about setting aside the demand that there be a freeze on the building of Israeli settlements as a precondition for negotiations.
Abbas said he considers it the “duty of the Israeli government to halt construction so that we can speak of issues.” Still, American officials considered it a sign of possible flexibility.
Later in the day, Obama gave a major address to a crowd made up largely of Israeli students. If he can have any effect on the peace process, Obama believes it will involve speaking directly to Israelis and asking them to push for change.
Obama has not unveiled a detailed plan for how Palestinians and Israelis might make their ways back to the negotiating table. Instead he has been exploring with Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu what may be possible.
It’s a change from the approach Obama launched early in his first term. At that time he laid out a peace initiative with a distinct set of ideas and a high-powered envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
“He went in with guns blazing,” said Zvika Krieger, senior vice president at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace. “But that didn’t work. This time his approach is, ‘Let’s hear the parties out.’ That’s smart.”
The Palestinian visit makes up just a sliver of Obama’s time during a trip devoted mostly to shoring up ties with Israel. He squeezed in the Ramallah stop between a morning of symbolic cultural visits in Jerusalem and the evening address at a Jerusalem convention center.
First thing Thursday morning, Obama went to the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient documents containing biblical text.
The morning activities were freighted with meaning, designed to comfort Israelis offended by Obama’s emphasis of the Holocaust in his 2009 Cairo speech rather than their historic ties to the land. He noted the suffering of the Jewish people as one reason they longed for a homeland.
Israelis want to hear that Obama affirms their biblical claim to Israel, not simply a 20th century reason for the Jewish state, said Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Obama’s paying respect to the sacred texts does that, said Oren.
Afterward, Obama boarded his Marine helicopter for the short flight to Ramallah, just 10 miles north of Jerusalem. As in Jerusalem, Obama planned a cultural excursion — this one to watch a dance performance at a youth center.
In diplomatic terms, though, the visit to the Palestinian Authority was of a lower order than the state visit to Israel. Obama’s schedule had him here for only a few hours. His meeting time with Abbas was shorter than with Netanyahu, as was the joint news conference.
As he planned his trip, Obama insisted to aides that he wanted to see Abbas on his own turf, to signal the U.S. regard for his office as the “address to visit” in Ramallah, as one adviser put it. Obama is going nowhere near the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday night, Obama bristled at a journalist’s question about what went wrong with his first-term attempts to reignite the peace process. The premise of the question, Obama said, is that, “having failed to achieve peace in the Middle East in my first term, that I must have screwed up somehow.”
Standing next to Abbas on Thursday, Obama equated the Palestinian cause with the American civil rights moment. There was a time in U.S. history, Obama said, when his own daughters “could not expect to have the same opportunities as somebody else’s daughter.”
“What’s true in the U.S. can be true here, as well,” Obama said, but only if the parties “break out of the old habits, the old arguments, to reach out for that new place, that new world.”
Abbas said Palestinians “believe that peace is necessary and inevitable, and we also believe it is possible.”
He condemned the continued development of Israeli settlements in territory Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War as illegal and called it “a hurdle to the two-state solution.”