The US president has called on Israeli students to create the peace they want in their country by tackling the regional issues that threaten their state. The call came during his four-day visit to the region.
Hundreds of students packed into an auditorium in Jerusalem on Thursday to hear a highly anticipated speech by US President Barack Obama during his first official trip as president to Israel. The US leader received resounding applause throughout the address during which he expressed his support for the Jewish state, but also did not shy away from criticizing its policies in the region.
Prior to the visit, critics of Obama had accused him of wavering support for Israel, one of the US' most important allies. He, in return, has refuted these claims and on Thursday told Israelis he would not hide his disapproval of some of their policies.
"It's important to be honest, especially with your friends," said Obama. "I want you to know that I speak to you as a friend who is deeply concerned and committed to your future."
The US president defended Israel on a variety of issues in an attempt to prove his support for its right to exist. Above all, he drew numerous comparisons between US and Israeli values of freedom and the right to self-determination, underscoring what he called "the yearning within every human being for a home."
He also praised the Jewish state for its accomplishments and bright future. Israel's successful entrepreneurship stood as a beacon in the world economy of what is to come, he said.
Threats to Israel are real
Israel had the right to defend itself given the threats to its existence issued repeatedly by its neighbors, Obama said.
"As long as there is a United Sates of America, you are not alone," Obama told the university students.
Obama called Hezbollah a terrorist organization and called on international leaders to stop supporting it. The militant group is currently in power in Lebanon and a known partner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but the European Union has declined to call it a terrorist group.
Iran must not acquire a nuclear weapon for Israel's and the world's sake, Obama stressed, adding that diplomacy between neighboring populations, not with governments, remained the best way to stop Tehran from carrying out its threats.
"Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation," Obama said.
Peace: 'necessary, just and possible'
Obama's first official trip to the region was not expected to extend into producing concrete peace plans. However, those expectations did not stop him from discussing the need for Israel to play a constructive role in peace.
During his address to the students, he often called on his audience to imagine the injustice experienced by Palestinians and the similarities of the two populations. At one point, he even argued that Israeli parents would want the same opportunities for Palestinian children as they would for their own.
"It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home," he said.
"Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer."
He said Israel's youth were in the unique position to shape a peaceful future. Not only did they have real partners in the Palestinian leaders, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but they also had young Palestinian neighbors who have also shunned violence. By harnessing the power of those two forces, peace could be a possibility.
However, peace was no guarantee and certainly would not emerge without the realization of the two state solution so that Israelis and Palestinians could both be free, he said.
Obama's speech followed a full itinerary on Thursday. Earlier in the day, he visited the Dead Sea Scrolls - documents more than 2,000 years old that include some of the earliest texts from the Bible. He also visited with President Abbas in Ramallah.
On Friday, Obama is scheduled to travel to Jordan, where he will hold talks with King Abdullah II.
kms/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)