JERUSALEM - Insisting "peace is possible," President Obama on Thursday prodded Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations with few, if any, preconditions, 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 Mideast, 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 break out of the "formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."
"Peace is possible," Obama said during an 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 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 at a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.