RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Barack Obama shuttled between the West Bank and Jerusalem on Thursday, prodding Palestinians and Israelis to restart peace talks as he acknowledged decades of frustration but insisted it's in both sides' best interest.
To university students in Israel, Obama delivered an impassioned speech that promised unwavering U.S. support for Israel but also called peace with the Palestinians critical to Israel's survival, "given the demographics west of the Jordan River." And he made his case on moral grounds, arguing that Palestinians have a right to be "a free people" on their own land.
"The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine," Obama said. "Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation."
Obama made the pitch to revive talks not to Israeli politicians in the Knesset, but to a convention center audience composed of college students who mostly received him warmly.
"Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do," Obama told the audience. "You must create the change that you want to see."
Speaking earlier at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Obama said his administration is "deeply committed" to creating an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. "We cannot give up on the search for peace," Obama said. "Too much is at stake."
But Obama, who said all parties need to "break out of the old habits," raised some hackles among Palestinians as he backed off a previous call for Israel to halt settlement building on land the Palestinians claim as a condition for peace talks.
He said the "core issue" is sovereignty for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis.
"That's the essence of this negotiation," he said. "That's not to say settlements are not important. It is to say that if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem will be solved."
In 2009, Obama said the United States did not "accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." On Thursday, he said only that the administration does not consider settlement activity to be "something that can advance the cause of peace."
Palestinian officials publicly praised Obama, though Abbas rarely smiled during the brief news conference held in the authority's compound in the West Bank's urban capital.
Speaking through an interpreter, Abbas said there was global opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.
"It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity so that we can speak of issues," Abbas said.
In his speech in Jerusalem, Obama asked the students to look at the situation through Palestinian eyes.
"It's not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day," Obama said.
Obama's visit was punctuated with a rocket attack by Hamas militants in Gaza on the Israeli town of Sderot, a border city that Obama had visited as a presidential candidate in 2008. Obama condemned the rocket attack, calling it a "violation of an important cease-fire that protects both Israel and Palestine."
"You are not alone," he told the Jerusalem audience in English and Hebrew. "Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist might as well reject the Earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere."
Danny Mazor, a 21-year-old from Ben Gurion University, said Obama's speech won him over.
"I wasn't always the biggest Obama fan," Mazor said. "Actually a couple years ago I thought he was a pretty bad guy, the kind of guy that would take the side of the Arabs over us. But I really like what he's been saying here, especially at the speech to us."