Obama: Mideast Peace Process Must Continue, ‘Too Much Is at Stake’

BY Larisa Epatko  March 21, 2013 at 7:00 AM EST


Watch President Obama’s full speech in Jerusalem.

Updated at 12:20 p.m. ET: President Obama made the case for restarting the peace process before Palestinian and Israeli audiences Thursday. “We cannot give up on the search for peace no matter how hard it is. … Too much is at stake.”

In a speech before an Israeli audience at the Jerusalem Convention Center, President Obama also addressed the turmoil in Syria, saying President Bashar al-Assad “must go so Syria’s future can begin,” and the threat of Iran’s nuclear program: All options “are on the table” to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

But he spent the bulk of the speech talking about how peace is necessary and the only path to true security in Israel, and how the only way it can succeed is through an “independent and viable Palestine.”

Peace has to be made among peoples, not governments, President Obama said. “No wall is high enough and no Iron Dome (missile defense system) is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing harm.”

But he said in terms of Palestinian leadership, he felt that Israel has a true partner in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “There’s an opportunity there.”

He reiterated the U.S. stance that the two sides must re-enter direct negotiations, and that, although the “United States opposes unilateral actions undertaken through the United Nations,” Palestinians’ right to justice must be recognized.

Earlier in the day, President Obama had met with Palestinians aged 15-22, and he described his impressions. “I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, ‘I want these kids to succeed, I want them to prosper’.”


President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

The president delivered the same message — that peace and a two-state solution are possible despite the many hurdles — at a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

“I absolutely think (a two-state solution) is still possible but it’s very difficult” because of the political constraints on both sides and the compromise that’s required, he said.

“We seek a viable and contiguous Palestinian state through continued negotiations,” said Mr. Obama. “We cannot give up on the search for peace no matter how hard it is. … Too much is at stake.”

Resolution to the long-standing conflict also would help open more opportunities on both sides, he continued. “One of the ironies of this conflict is the Israeli and Palestinian people are entrepreneurial and could lift up the economy as a whole.”

He said he thought many Israelis and Palestinians would support a peace deal. “If we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe that the shape of a potential deal is there. If both sides can make that leap together, not only do I believe the Israeli and Palestinian people would support it in huge numbers … but I think the whole world would cheer.”

When pressed on the issue of Israel continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, President Obama said he’s “been clear” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders that the United States doesn’t consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, appropriate, or something that can advance the cause of peace. “I will say with respect to Israel, the politics there are complex, and I recognize that that’s not going to be an issue that’s solved immediately.”

But “if the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations.”

Israelis have concerns about rockets flying into their cities, as occurred last night, he said, and “it’d be easy for them to say, ‘you see, this is why we can’t have peace’.”

Despite these dynamics, the two sides should focus on the core issues: how to get sovereignty for the Palestinian people and security for the Israeli people, he added. “If we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved.”

President Obama said part of the goal of his trip was to hear from Netanyahu and Abbas about how the process can move forward on the broader mission, and now he and Secretary of State John Kerry will see what they can do.

Abbas emphasized at the press conference that the settlement activity is illegal. “We hope that the Israeli government understands this and listens to the many voices inside Israel speaking about the illegality of the settlements,” he said through a translator.

He said the younger generation of Palestinians sees the settlements growing in the West Bank and becomes convinced that nothing can be done.

But he maintained that he has “full confidence” that President Obama and Kerry can help remove the obstacles to the peace process.

View more on President Obama’s trip to the Middle East on the NewsHour’s World page.