Obama: U.S. Backs Israel, but Mindful of Palestinians' Plight

'We have to realize both the Palestinians and Israelis have legitimate aspirations,' Obama says.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday he would never waver from support for Israel's security but that Washington must also pay attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.

"We are working to try to strengthen the ability of both parties to have to sit down across the table," Obama said at a townhall-style meeting in Tampa. His administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have made little progress since he took office a year ago.

The president referred to Israel as "one of our strongest allies," adding that "the Palestinians have to unequivocally renounce violence and recognize Israel. And Israel has to acknowledge legitimate grievances and interests of the Palestinians. We have to realize both the Palestinians and Israelis have legitimate aspirations."

Obama cautioned both sides against "mutual demonization" that threatens to jeopardize the resumption of peace negotiations.

The president also cited the domestic political constraints that are hindering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, circumstances which are limiting prospects for peacemaking.

Obama said the Israeli premier "is making some effort to move a little bit further than his coalition wants to go."

Netanyahu's right-leaning government includes pro-settler parties strongly opposed to ceding West Bank land to the Palestinians for a future state.

Obama said Abbas "genuinely wants peace" but has to deal with Hamas, a militant group that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. Abbas, a pro-U.S. moderate, is also weakened by Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip while he governs only in the West Bank.

Saying Israelis and Palestinians both have "legitimate aspirations," Obama sought to reassert his administration's ability to act as an even-handed broker.

"Israel is one of our strongest allies," Obama said. "It's critical for us, and I will never waver from ensuring Israel's security."

But he quickly insisted, "The plight of the Palestinians is something that we have to pay attention to. It is not good for our security and for Israel's security if you have millions of individuals who feel hopeless."

Last week, Obama said his administration overestimated its ability to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume meaningful peace talks.

In an interview with Time magazine, Obama said both parties have been unwilling to make the bold gestures needed to move the process forward. If the U.S. had anticipated that earlier, Obama says he might not have raised his expectations so high.

Obama said the U.S. will continue to work toward a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty. His remarks came in an interview with Time Magazine published Thursday.