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Obama stresses safety for Israelis, self-determination for Palestinians

JERUSALEM -- In a speech he delivered to college students in Israel, President Barack Obama reassured the Israeli people that he understood their plight and connection to the land, saying he believed that Israel is rooted in the “idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.”

With Israeli and American flags behind him, the president attempted to reintroduce himself to a reportedly disillusioned Israeli population and convince them he recognized their need to have a safe haven.

In remarks similar to the one he gave at Cairo University at the beginning of his first term, Obama shared some of the African-American story of slavery, as well as his own story. “Growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home,” he said.

And the president received a sustained applause when he said, “Make no mistake: Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”

Yet the president spoke plainly about the need for not only a safe Israeli state but also an “independent and viable Palestine" -- which the audience received with applause but also by some stern looks.

“The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes,” Obama said.

He went off-script when he talked about visiting students Ramallah earlier today in an attempt to convince those watching him speak that Palestinian children want the same thing Israeli children do. “And talking to them, they weren't that different from my daughters. They weren't that different from your daughters or sons.  I honestly believe that if -- if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they'd say, I want these kids to succeed.”

This story played into one of the issues that the president was attempting to overcome in this speech, according to a senior administration official:  That many in the region believe “peace is isn't worth pursuing anymore.“

That sentiment was reflected by a 28-year-old Tel Aviv university student in the audience. “I don’t see how we in the near future have a peace agreement, because I don’t think there’s someone to talk to on the other side,” she said.  

Obama also had tough words for Palestinians. “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security,” he remarked.

And the president used a Hebrew phrased to express the overwhelming theme of the speech: “Ah-tem lo lah-vahd.” This means, “You are not alone.”

To back that up, Obama is sending Secretary of State John Kerry back to Israel this weekend to continue discussions about the peace process.

On Friday morning, the president will visit Bethlehem before heading to Jordan to sit down with King Abdullah II.