US President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu during an official state dinner.
US President Barack Obama was given a rapturous reception
by Israeli students as he made a rousing call for peace with
the Palestinians, but his lofty oratory got lower marks beyond
the conference hall.
Urging the younger generation to push politicians for change,
Obama said a concerted effort must be made to secure an
independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
The youthful audience repeatedly interrupted Obama with loud
applause, holding up their cell phones to film his
performance and giving him a standing ovation after a lone
heckler was whisked away by security staff.
"He is a president who is also a rockstar. It's amazing. He
knows how to touch the hearts of the people," said Gur
Wallner, 25, a media student from the southern Israeli
college of Sapir.
Israeli and Palestinian political leaders, however, were
significantly less enthusiastic about his speech, which was
billed as the highlight of Obama's three-day visit.
"A Palestinian state is not the right way forward," said
Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settler Jewish Home party,
who was recently appointed industry and trade minister in
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new centre-right
Bennett dismissed Obama's call for an end to the occupation
of territory seized in the 1967 Middle East war, suggesting
the land belonged to Israel.
"There is no such thing as a nation being an occupier in its
own land," Bennett said in a comment pasted on Facebook.
A short distance away in the occupied West Bank, few
Palestinians appeared to believe that Obama's appeal would
bring swift results and expressed disappointment that
Washington did not appear ready to apply effective pressure
Direct peace talks between the two sides broke down in 2010,
with the Palestinians walking away from the table when Israel
refused to extend a partial freeze on settlement building.
"Certainly US policy is biased toward the Israeli position,"
said Tayseer Khaled, a member of the executive committee of
the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
"President Obama did not say what is required of Israel and
did not take a clear position on settlements and the borders
of the Palestinian state."
Palestinian hopes that Obama would change the dynamics of
their decades-old conflict with Israel soared in 2009 when he
made a speech in Cairo openly denouncing Israeli settlements.
The address in the Egyptian capital was portrayed as a "new
beginning" in relations between the United States and the
Muslim world. But four years on, students in Cairo expressed
"Obama undertakes policies that show more understanding of
the Islamic world, but he did not achieve anything for the
Palestinian cause," said Mohammed Abdel Rahman, a 20-year-old
science student at Cairo University.
Obama appealed directly to Israelis to put themselves in the
shoes of stateless Palestinians, saying Western-backed
leaders in nearby Ramallah were ready for meaningful talks.
But Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon threw cold
water on the idea. "It is clear to us that we all want peace,
but the public in Israel understands today that to our regret
there is no real partner," he told Israel radio.
Even some of Obama's audience, while welcoming his warmth and
wit, questioned his vision of hope.
"I agreed with a lot of the things he said, but there was
also a lot of unrealistic optimism," said Tal Ginzberg, 25, a
student at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.
"He is right that the Palestinians deserve their own state,
but he ignores the fact that they are led by terrorist
The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has renounced
violence, but has said it will not return to negotiations
unless Israel halts the settlement building.
Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior PLO leader in Ramallah, said he
had heard nothing in the past two days to make him
optimistic. "Obama's visit provides no clear way forward for
a serious solution to the conflict," he told Reuters.