JERUSALEM — In separate talks before West Bank Palestinians and Israeli college students that carried echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s call to “think anew and act anew,” President Obama urged both groups Thursday to abandon old ways of thinking and search for new means to reach peace while it was still possible.
On the second day of his three-day visit to the region, Mr. Obama traveled to Ramallah in the West Banks to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At a press conference that followed, Mr. Obama reiterated his support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and criticized Israeli settlement expansion as “not constructive.”
But he challenged Palestinian insistence that Israel halt its settlement activity as a precondition to resumption of peace talks.
“If the only way to begin [negotiations] is to get everything right at the outset we’re never going to get to the broader issue — to provide sovereignty and dignity for the Palestinian people and security for Israel,” Mr. Obama said.
His remark angered Mr. Abbas, who said that settlement building was clearly illegal.
“Therefore, we demand that the Israeli government first stop its activity,” the Palestinian leader said.
This position has meant that for years there have been no negotiations while tens of thousands of settlement homes have been built.
Mr. Obama said he still believes it possible to create a Palestinian state but that negotiations must begin without insisting that the settlement issue be resolved first.
“Both sides are going to have to think anew,” he said. “We [the U.S.] are also going to have to think anew.”
In a message to Congress in 1862 a month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln wrote: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Later Thursday, Mr. Obama addressed several hundred Israeli university students from around the country in a Jerusalem convention center and urged that Israel likewise disenthrall itself and think anew.
His Israeli hosts had wanted him to deliver his address from the podium of the Knesset, but Mr. Obama had insisted on a nonpolitical venue and a young, nonpartisan audience whom he called “the next generation” that will decide the country’s direction.
“As a politician I can tell you that political leaders never take risks if the people do not push them,” he said, calling on his audience to press the country’s leadership.
His comment made clear the objective of the highly effective charm offensive he has undertaken in Israel, one that turned him within hours from an object of suspicion to someone probably more admired than any Israeli politician.
From the prolonged applause of the audience it was clear that his message had gotten across.