President Barack Obama yesterday called on the Israeli public to empathise with Palestinians living under military occupation and to press their leaders to make compromises for peace.
His intervention was quickly dismissed by the pro-settler Jewish Home party, a key component of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government, though it was welcomed by Palestinian officials.
On the second day of a visit to Israel and the West Bank, Mr Obama used a speech in Jerusalem to university students to go over the head of his hard-line host, Mr Netanyahu.
The speech appeared aimed at prompting Israelis to think about where their continued control of the West Bank was leading and to alleviate scepticism that peace with the Palestinians was possible.
Mr Obama started by assuring Israelis that they would always have American support: “As long as there is a USA you are not alone,” he said to loud applause.
But he then urged Israel’s younger generation to demand that their politicians take risks for peace in an address interrupted frequently by applause, including a standing ovation for the president when he was briefly heckled.
“You must create the change that you want to see,” he told his young audience.
“Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine,” he said.
It was a clear warning that Israel’s continued hold over the West Bank, territory captured along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, would ultimately lead to an Arab majority in land controlled by the Jewish state.
“There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turn to terror and leaders who miss historic opportunities and that is why security must be at the centre of any agreement,” the American president said.
“But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised,” said Mr Obama. “Put yourself in their shoes. It is not fair that Palestinian children can’t grow up in a state of their own, that they have to live their entire lives with a foreign army that controls the movements of their parents every single day?
“It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished?
“Israel must recognise that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.”
However, Mr Obama made no mention of his previous position that peacemaking should be based on the borders that prevailed before the 1967 war, meaning all of the West Bank, with land swaps, would be sovereign Palestinian territory.
Moreover, in remarks early yesterday after talks in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama rejected the Palestinian position that Israeli settlement building would have to stop as a precondition for the resumption of direct peace talks.
“If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time than there is no point for negotiations, so I think that even if there are irritants on both sides it is important to work through the process,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Abbas said Palestinians would stick to their demand for a freeze.
In his Jerusalem speech, Mr Obama said it was up to the Israeli public to press the government to make peace. “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them. You must create the change.”
Palestinian Authority spokeswoman Nour Odeh had qualified praise for the speech.
“It was the first time a US president talked about occupation, settler violence, Palestinian justice and self determination even though he endorsed the Zionist narrative,” she said.
But Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, rejected the premise that the West Bank was under occupation and stressed there should be no withdrawal since Israel’s 2006 pull-out from the Gaza Strip was followed by Hamas rocket fire from the coastal enclave.
“People cannot be considered to be occupiers when they are in their own land,” he said.