In Ramallah, Obama implies settlement freeze not needed

TEL AVIV (JTA) — President Obama implied during a news conference in Ramallah that a settlement freeze should not be a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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He made the statement Thursday, following a long meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah,

“If the only way to begin the conversation is that we get everything right at the outset, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do we structure a state of Palestine and how do you provide Israel confidence about its security,” Obama said. “That’s not to say settlements are not important.”

Early in his first term, in 2009, Obama called on Israel to freeze all settlement building in the West Bank, which Israel partially acquiesced to after initially resisting. Since that 10-month freeze expired, during which little diplomatic activity took place, Abbas has demanded another freeze in order to resume talks.

At Thursday’s news conference, on the second day of Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, Abbas did not explicitly call for a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, though he didn’t drop the call, either.

“We are asking nothing outside the framework of international agreements,” Abbas said. “It is the duty of Israel to at least halt the activity. Each side will know its territory” after peace talks are concluded.

Obama and Abbas both called for a two-state solution. Obama stressed that an agreement must come out of direct negotiations rather than other forums, an implicit criticism of Abbas’ request last year that the United Nations recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.

“We seek an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” Obama said. “The only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”

Obama also harshly criticized Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. In the hours before Obama traveled to Ramallah, several rockets fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli city of Sderot.

Obama said at the news conference that “we condemn this violation of the important ceasefire.” He said Hamas is “more interested in tearing Israel down than in building Palestine up.”

Earlier Thursday, Obama visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as some recent Israeli hi-tech innovations. Later in the afternoon in Jerusalem he will address a crowd of Israelis, including many students. After he leaves Israel on Friday he is scheduled to visit Jordan.