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Few people expected President Obama to make progress toward Middle East peace during his visit to the region this week. One thing he could do was talk about it. And the president challenged Israelis, in a speech yesterday. He effectively went over their leaders' heads to address the Israeli people. Speaking of Palestinians, he said, "Put yourself in their shoes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own."
The president said that on the same day that Palestinians expressed doubts about the president's seriousness. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's Middle East trip comes as Jews around the world are preparing to celebrate Passover. And as he spoke to an audience in Jerusalem yesterday, the president told how the story of slavery, exile and ultimate redemption at the heart of the holiday has inspired not only Jews but also immigrants, African-Americans, and others who've known suffering and salvation.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being, for a home.
HORSLEY: The Passover story was a way for Obama to connect, in personal terms, with a history and tradition of Israel as a Jewish homeland. He promised the United States will continue to defend that homeland from Israel's sometimes-hostile neighbors.
OBAMA: Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist, they might as well reject the earth beneath themor the sky above because Israel is not going anywhere.
HORSLEY: But with that promise of undying support for Israel, came a challenge for Obama's mostly college-aged audience. He says it's up to them to shape the future of the promised land; a future he says should include peaceful co-existence with a Palestinian state.
OBAMA: Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged not everyone shares that view, either in Israel or the United States. But he argues a separate Palestine is the best way to preserve Israel as a secure, democratic, Jewish state. And he says those who feel the same, have to make their voices heard.
OBAMA: And let me say this as a politician. I can promise you this. Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.
HORSLEY: Twenty-eight-year-old Israeli government student Shani Manner was impressed.
SHANI MANNER: I think it's fabulous. I think there's a notion, in this country, where young people really want to change things. And people are so forlorn, at this point. They don't really know how to, and they just kind of forget about it. They just focus on other things. And he really made a difference for me. It made me want to go out, and just continue on.
HORSLEY: Obama got a less friendly welcome earlier, when he visited the West Bank.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRADITIONAL FOLK MUSIC)
HORSLEY: While he made a show of visiting a youth center and watching a traditional folk dance, many Palestinians who cheered for the president four years ago have grown disillusioned with the stalled peace process.
The West Bank streets Obama passed through were patrolled by armed soldiers, and nearly deserted. Reema Nazel, who attended a protest in downtown Ramallah, says she's skeptical of the president's efforts.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
REEMA NAZEL: If we want to trust Obama, then he has to give something so as to build the trust between the American and the Palestinian people.
HORSLEY: The leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, complained trust has been eroded by the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Obama agrees those settlements are not helpful to the peace process. But he's no longer demanding that Israel stop building as a precondition for direct talks.
OBAMA: If the expectation is - is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there's no point for negotiations.
HORSLEY: Instead, Obama argues negotiations should focus on fundamental issues such as the borders of the proposed states, saying that would answer the settlement question. Today, the president travels to Jordan, to continue his Middle East tour. But he's promised to send Secretary of State Kerry back to Israel this weekend, to follow up.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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