JERUSALEM - Insisting "peace is possible," President Barack Obama on Thursday prodded both Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations with few, if any, pre-conditions, softening his earlier demands that Israel stop building settlements in disputed territory.
The president made his appeal just hours after rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza landed in a southern Israeli border town, a fresh reminder of the severe security risks and tensions that have stymied peace efforts for decades.
Obama, on his second day in the Middle East, shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah, reaching out to the public as well as political leaders. He offered no new policies or plans for reopening peace talks but urged both sides to "think anew" about the intractable conflict and break out of the "formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."
President Barack Obama waves to media as he walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, as he arrives at the Muqata Presidential Compound Thursday, in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
"Peace is possible," Obama declared during an impassioned speech to young people in Jerusalem. "I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible."
The deep disputes dividing the Israelis and Palestinians have remained much the same over the years, and include deciding the status of Jerusalem, defining borders and resolving refugee issues. Palestinians have been particularly incensed over Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the Israelis' continued construction has also drawn the condemnation of the United States and other nations.
Further settlement activity is "counterproductive to the cause of peace," Obama said. But in a notable shift, he did not repeat his administration's previous demands that Israel halt construction. Instead he urged the Palestinians to stop using the disagreement as an "excuse" to avoid talks.
"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," Obama said during a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. "I think it is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides."
Abbas said Palestinians remain committed to seeking peace with Israelis, but he made clear that settlement construction had made his people distrustful of Israel's intentions.
"This is very dangerous that people and the new generation reaches the conviction that it's no more possible to believe in the two-state solution," he said.
Obama has sided with the Palestinians on the settlement issue during his first four years in office. However, when Israel reluctantly declared a 10-month moratorium on construction, the Palestinians balked at returning to negotiations until shortly before the suspension expired and talks foundered shortly thereafter.