JERUSALEM (AP) - 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."
"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.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem - territories Israel captured in the 1967 war - but indicate they are ready for minor adjustments to accommodate some settlements closest to Israel. Since 1967, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are now home to 560,000 Israelis - an increase of 60,000 since Obama became president four years ago.
Upon his return to Israel, the president told Israelis that in the search for peace they have "true partners" in Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister.
Obama is spending the majority of his four-day Mideast trip in Israel, where the politicians and public have been skeptical of his commitment to their security. The president has sought to calm their concerns throughout his visit, reminding an audience of Israeli university students Thursday that the U.S. is their country's best friend and most important ally.
"You are not alone," Obama declared as the crowd erupted in thunderous applause.
Still, he nudged Israel to take steps to reverse an "undertow" of international isolation that is worsened by its failure to make peace with the Palestinians. In a region roiled by political unrest, Obama said the days when the Israelis can seek protection from a handful of autocratic leaders in other nations are over, and he urged them to seek common ground with the Arab people, not just their governments.
The president closed his five-hour trip to the West Bank with a visit to a U.S. government-funded youth center, where he cheered a performance by a dance troupe and held a private roundtable discussion with a small group of young Palestinian men. He recalled the conversation later in his Jerusalem speech, saying that if "any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they'd say, "I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper.' I believe that's what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them."