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Obama appeals to Israelis: Give justice to the Palestinians

President Barack Obama on Thursday urged the Israeli people to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and recognize their "right to self-determination, their right to justice."

In a televised speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, Obama said there should be "two states for two peoples."

Breaking off from his prepared text, he said that he recently met with a group of young Palestinians.

"Talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters, they weren’t that different from your daughters or sons," he said.

"I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with these kids, they’d say, 'I want these kids to succeed, I want them to prosper, I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do,'" he added to applause.

Obama, on the second day of his first official trip to Israel, warned that "the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state" was through the creation of an independent Palestine.

That state had to be "viable" with real borders, he said, criticizing the building of settlements in the West Bank.

He urged ordinary Israelis to put pressure on their leaders to achieve a future in which Jews, Christians and Muslims could live in peace.

"I also know that not everyone in this hall will agree with what I have to say about peace. I recognize that there are those who are not simply skeptical about peace, but question its underlying premise, have a different vision for Israel’s future and that's a part of democracy and the discourse between our two countries," he said.

"Peace is necessary, I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future," he added.

At a state dinner in Jerusalem Thursday evening, Israel's President Shimon Peres awarded Obama with Israel’s highest honor — the Presidential Medal of Distinction — emphasizing what Peres called his "unforgettable contribution" to the security of Israel.

U.S. support for the Iron Dome missile defense system had been instrumental in saving Israeli lives, Peres said.

As Obama sat at the dais with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara before a room full of Israeli dignitaries, Peres called out the U.S. president's "tireless work to make Israel strong to make peace possible."

Peres said he was "convinced" the United States "will do whatever is necessary on the Iranian threat."

Obama said he was accepting the award "on behalf of the American people."

Israel must avoid 'isolation'

In his address at the convention center Obama stressed that America would always support Israel, echoing his comments Wednesday that the U.S. was Israel's "eternal" ally.

But he said peace had to be made between "peoples" and could not be achieved through military hardware alone.

"Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war — because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough and perfect enough, to stop every enemy that’s intent on doing so from inflicting harm," he added.

Obama said Israel could not be expected to negotiate with anyone "dedicated to its destruction."

But he said he believed that Israelis had a "true partner" in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. On a visit to the West Bank earlier Thursday, Obama condemned the Palestinian Hamas party, which holds sway in the Gaza Strip and is a rival to Abbas' Fatah movement.

"So many young Palestinians have rejected violence. There’s an opportunity there. There’s a window," he said. "Peace is possible."

At one point in the speech, someone in the audience began heckling Obama, who peered toward the back of the hall to try to see what was happening.

"This is part of the lively debate we talked about," he said, referencing a line earlier in his speech. "This is good."

He joked about media reports that he and Prime Minister Netanyahu do not get along. It was just a "plot" between him and "my friend Bibi" to give journalists something to write about, he suggested.

Earlier, Obama met with Abbas in the West Bank.

After his helicopter touched down in Ramallah, Obama was greeted cordially by Abbas and the two hugged.

"We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is. ... Too much is at stake," the president said during a joint news conference.

'Misery' of Hamas

He sounded hopeful about Abbas and the Palestinian Authority and reiterated U.S. willingness to help.

"The United States is deeply committed to the creation of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine," he said, adding, "Simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own."

When asked whether he thought a halt to further settlement activity was required before peace talks could begin in earnest, Obama demurred. 

"If the only way to even begin the conversation is that we get everything right from the outset … then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how you actually structure a state of Palestine that is sovereign and contiguous," the president said.

"The core issue right now is how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and ensure security for the Israeli people," he added. "If we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved."

The president praised Abbas for his leadership and sharply criticized rival group Hamas for the "misery" of Palestinians in Gaza.

For his part, Abbas said he had "renewed confidence" in U.S. assistance with the peace process after meeting with Obama.

"We have conducted a good and useful round of talks," he said through an interpreter.

Abbas called for an end to Israeli construction of settlements in Palestinian territories.

He warned that continued building of the sites was causing Palestinians, particularly the younger generation, to lose hope that Israel and a sovereign Palestine could peacefully co-exist.

When young Palestinians see the settlements, he said, "they do not trust the two-state solution anymore, and this is very dangerous" for the future.

Two rockets that may have been a show of protest were fired into southern Israel close to the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip early Thursday.


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