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March 21, 2013

Obama says he's not giving up on Mideast peace

RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Barack Obama today urged Israelis and Palestinians to get back to peace talks but offered no new ideas on how they might do so, essentially abandoning his previous support of the Palestinian demand for Israel to halt settlement activity before negotiations resume.

In remarks likely to disappoint, if not infuriate, the Palestinians, Obama said the United States continues to oppose the construction of Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians but stressed that issues of disagreement between the two sides should not be used as an "excuse" to do nothing. He said there would be no point to negotiations if differences had to be resolved before they start.

"Even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, maybe engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement," Obama told reporters at a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank.

"I think we can keep pushing through some of these problems and make sure that we don't use them as an excuse not to do anything," he said.

Obama's comments echoed those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called for the Palestinians to drop their "preconditions" for re-launching the peace talks. The U.S. president's remarks are sure to reinforce skepticism among Palestinians that Obama is ready, willing or able to use U.S. influence to press Israel into making concessions on a matter they have identified as a top priority.

During his first four years in office, Obama had sided with the Palestinians on the issue. He and his surrogates repeatedly demanded that all settlement activity cease. However, when Israel reluctantly declared a 10-month moratorium on construction, the Palestinians balked at returning to the table.

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