RAMALLAH // Barack Obama yesterday urged Palestinians and Israelis to get back to the negotiating table, saying disagreements should not be used as an excuse to do nothing.
In his first trip to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the US president said he had told Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that the US did not consider the construction of Jewish homes on land claimed by Palestinians for a future state to be in "the cause of peace".
He underlined what he described as his country's deep commitment to creating an independent and sovereign state of Palestine.
"Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own," he said.
But he angered and disappointed Palestinians by making it clear he no longer supported their demand for Israel to halt settlement activity before talks resume.
"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," Mr Obama said at a press conference with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
"So I think it is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides."
In remarks later in Jerusalem, Mr Obama did not offer plans to revive the peace process but called on an audience of Israeli university students to urge their leadership to move towards a Palestinian state.
Arabs may soon outnumber Jews if Israel kept control of the Palestinian territories, which he warned would jeopardise Israel's status as being "Jewish and democratic".
Mr Obama also asked for empathy - "Look at the world through their eyes" - and said the Arab Spring was an opportunity, rather than a reason to disengage the region.
"I recognise that with the uncertainty in the region - people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics - it is tempting to turn inward," Mr Obama said.
"But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace."
Arriving by helicopter in Ramallah, Mr Obama held a two-hour meeting with Mr Abbas in the presidential compound.
Just blocks away, about 100 Palestinians protested against Washington's support of Israel.
"We welcome Obama but we vigorously protest his policies," said Haitham Arrar, a member of Palestinian Fatah faction's Revolutionary Council. "Because all we Palestinians are left with are checkpoints, settlements, walls, theft of land, and Obama just turns a blind eye to this."
Before travelling to the West Bank yesterday, Mr Obama viewed biblical-era antiquities, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, at Jerusalem's Israel Museum with Mr Netanyahu.
When he arrived in Israel on Wednesday, Mr Obama appeared to go out of his way to charm the Israeli premier and mend their badly strained personal ties.
Palestinian officials have complained in private that his regional tour seemed more about building rapport with Mr Netanyahu than ending Israel's occupation.
Some expressed dismay over the US president's fulsome praise of Washington's alliance with Israel on the first day of his visit.
"The reaction, at least in private, was condemnation and anger that this man has praised the leader of a country that occupying us, depriving us of freedom," said one senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official in Ramallah. "Some of us were cursing the television screen."
While he stopped short of outlining new proposal for restarting Israel-Palestinian peace talks yesterday, Mr Obama sought to reassure Palestinians about the US commitment to a two-state solution.
The US, he said, wants to bring them "closer to an end of [Israeli] occupation and the daily indignities that come with it".
Mr Obama said his secretary of state, John Kerry, would lead efforts to try to find common ground between the sides for a resumption of talks.
The last round of Israel-Palestinian peace talks, in late 2010, collapsed because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop building settlements.
Mr Abbas, who strongly condemned settlements as illegal while standing next to the US leader, did not back away from demanding a settlement freeze before he returned to negotiations.
"It is a duty of the Israeli government to halt settlement activity," Mr Abbas said.
He said young Palestinians had lost faith in the creation of a peaceful, secure and independent Palestinian state next to Israel.
"For many Palestinians, when they see settlements, they don't trust the [concept of] the two-state solution any more," he said. "The new generation doesn't believe in the two-state solution."
Before flying to Jordan today for talks with King Abdullah II, Mr Obama will tour the West Bank city of Bethlehem.