Middle East

Obama urges Palestinians to drop settlement precondition

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Media captionPresident Obama: "Negotiations will be necessary, but there is little secret about where they must lead. Two states for two peoples"

President Barack Obama has urged Palestinians to drop their demands for a freeze in Israeli settlement building as a precondition for peace talks.

Speaking in Ramallah after talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama said settlement activity was "not appropriate for peace".

He stressed his commitment to a two-state solution, but said both sides may have to "push through" disagreements.

Later, he told Israelis they had a "true partner" for peace in Mr Abbas.

In a speech to students in Jerusalem, he said Israel was "at a crossroads", but must "reverse an undertow of isolation" and recognise that compromise was necessary for peace.

"Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land," he said, urging the audience to "look at the world through their eyes".

'Peace is possible'

Mr Obama's three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank is his first as president.

The building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land has been the major stumbling block in the peace process, with Palestinians long insisting it must stop completely before stalled talks can restart.

Mr Obama has previously backed that view and told reporters in Ramallah on Thursday that "we do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace".

But he added: "If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there is no point for negotiations."

While there were "irritants on both sides", such problems could not be used "as an excuse to do nothing", he said.

"My argument is that even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, maybe engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement," he said.

Thanking the US administration for its continuing support for the Palestinian Authority, Mr Abbas said peace with Israel should not be achieved through violence, occupation, settlements, arrests or denial of refugee rights.

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Media captionPresident Obama and Mahmoud Abbas gave a joint news conference following talks

About 150 protesters were kept away from the Palestinian president's compound by police.

Later in Jerusalem, Mr Obama told a student audience that the only way for Israel to thrive as a Jewish, democratic state was through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestinian state.

He said peace was necessary, just and possible, and that Mr Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were "true partners" for peace.

Mr Obama was heckled as he spoke - but responded by saying it was part of the "lively debate" in Israel.

On Thursday morning, Israeli officials said two rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel, but there were no reports of anyone being hurt. A further two rockets fired from Gaza reportedly fell inside Gaza itself.

Mr Abbas condemned "violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets", according to a Palestinian spokesperson.

On Wednesday Mr Obama pledged America's strong support for Israel as he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution.

Iran threats

Palestinians, however, will be sceptical about Mr Obama's commitment to statehood as such words have been uttered before, the BBC's Jon Donnison reports from Ramallah.

In a 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr Obama called the situation for Palestinians "intolerable" and spoke of their "undeniable" suffering in pursuit of a homeland.

Since then, however, little has changed on the ground as the Middle East's most intractable conflict has been sidelined by the Arab Spring, and US-Israeli concern over Syria and Iran, our correspondent says.

Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said his country would "raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to ground if Israel attacks", Iranian state media report.

Iran and its nuclear programme, which Israel believes is a threat to its existence, has been a major topic during Mr Obama's visit.

On Wednesday, he and Mr Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, with the US president saying he still hoped the issue could be resolved with diplomacy, but repeating his assurances to Israel that he had not ruled out military action.

The two leaders said they agreed that Israel had the right to "defend itself by itself".

Before travelling to the West Bank on Thursday, the US leader visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with Mr Netanyahu to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. He will leave for Jordan on Friday.

Security for his three-day visit is tight, with thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers on duty in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinians' de facto capital.