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Obama downplays settlements as main obstacle to peace

March 21, 2013 2:57 P.M. (Updated: March 23, 2013 2:08 P.M.)
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- US President Barack Obama on Thursday downplayed continued Israeli settlement building as an obstacle to the peace process, and he called on the Palestinians to resume talks.

In a joint news conference in Ramallah, Obama said both sides should overcome their respective concerns about one another's commitment to the peace process.

"That's not to say settlements aren't important, that's to say if we resolve the (main) problems, then settlements will be resolved," Obama said, referring to the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate while Israel continues to build on Palestinian land.

"If to begin the conversation we have to get everything right from the outset ... then we're never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do you structure a state of Palestine," Obama said.

President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking directly after Obama, responded defiantly that the Palestinian position on settlements had not changed.

"It isn't just our perception that settlements are illegal. It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution," he said.

"We are asking for nothing outside the international legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to halt settlement activities so we can at least speak."

He added: "We hope that the Israeli government understands this. We hope they listen to the many opinions inside Israel itself speaking of the illegality of settlements."

Neither side directly referenced a report in The New York Times on Thursday suggesting Abbas would ask Obama for help securing an unannounced settlement freeze from Israel's prime minister.

But Abbas said that during his meeting with Obama, "We spoke about (settlements) with Mr President (Obama) and we clarified our point of view about how we can reach a solution."

He also said that "We never gave up our vision, whether now or previously."

But Abbas described the meeting with Obama as positive, saying he left the room with "renewed confidence that the United States ... will help remove obstacles to achieving a just peace.

In Obama's opening remarks in Ramallah, the president said that the United States was "deeply committed to the creation of an independent sovereign state of Palestine."

He praised Abbas' work along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to build the necessary institutions for a Palestinian state and acknowledged the peaceful, popular resistance against Israel's wall.

"I think of the villages that hold peaceful protests because they understand the importance of nonviolence," Obama said.

He also condemned Hamas' refusal to renounce violence and the firing of rockets from Gaza hours earlier, and said "some people" opposed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal because "they benefit from the current conflict."

Obama was to remain in Ramallah for the afternoon to meet with Palestinian young people at a youth center in Al-Bireh, a Palestinian town near Ramallah.

He was scheduled to speak in Jerusalem Thursday evening and visit Bethlehem on Friday before ending his three-day visit to the region with a visit to the Jordanian capital and Petra.

Palestinian analysts had not predicted any progress from the visit.

Muhammad Jadallah, a Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, told Ma’an that "We are a nation that welcomes all visitors but it looks like the Palestinians are not satisfied with Mr Obama’s visit."

"They don’t respect him, and he is the worst US president. He used the (UN Security Council) veto to help the settlements and used it again against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"For these reasons we can’t welcome the president, and we can’t consider him a peacemaker just because he got a Nobel prize for peace -- he didn’t bring any peace during his presidency."

He added: "After every visit of a US president to our land, we watch peace slip further away."
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