'Peace is possible,' Obama insists in Middle East

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 21 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Still, he nudged Israel to take steps to reverse an "undertow" of international isolation that is worsened by its failure to make peace with the Palestinians. In a region roiled by political unrest, Obama said the days when the Israelis can seek protection from a handful of autocratic leaders in other nations are over, and he urged them to seek common ground with the Arab people, not just their governments.

Hours before Obama arrived in the West Bank, militants in the Gaza Strip launched at least two rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage but no injuries, according to Israeli officials. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited the border town, which is frequently targeted in rocket attacks.

A small, murky, al-Qaida-inspired group calling itself the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, it said it was sending a message to "Osama's soldiers" to protest the visit by "the Roman dog Obama" and to continue its campaign of holy war.

Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israel, prompting Israel, with considerable U.S. assistance, to develop its Iron Dome missile defense system, which it credits with intercepting many rockets.

The president closed his five-hour trip to the West Bank with a visit to a U.S. government-funded youth center, where he cheered a performance by a dance troupe and held a private roundtable discussion with a small group of young Palestinian men. He recalled the conversation later in his Jerusalem speech, saying that if "any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they'd say, 'I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper.' I believe that's what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them."

While Obama was welcomed warmly in Israel, where U.S. and Israeli flags dotted the roadsides, Palestinians showed little excitement over Obama's shorter stop in the West Bank. Protesters defaced and burned posters of Obama in an expression of dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the region. Several dozen demonstrators also gathered in downtown Ramallah during Obama's meetings, protesting what is perceived in the Palestinian territories to be a strong U.S. bias in favor of Israel.

The president opened the second day of his trip at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, a stop aimed at highlighting both the Jewish people's ancient connection to the land that is now Israel and the small nation's thriving modern economy.

The president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Hebrew texts. It was a symbolic visit for Obama, who has battled against a perception in Israel that he sees the Holocaust, not historical ties to the region, as the rationale for the existence of the Jewish state. The president has repeatedly sought to correct that impression.

As he viewed the ancient scrolls displayed in a dimly lit room, Obama marveled at how the Hebrew language had changed so little that Netanyahu could read some of the writings. The two then toured a technology exhibit at the museum featuring several modern Israeli inventions, including an electric vehicle battery, a technology Obama has promoted in the U.S.

Obama was awarded Israel's Medal of Distinction Thursday night during a lavish dinner. He is the first sitting U.S. president to receive Israel's highest civilian honor.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Ian Deitch and Josef Federman in Jerusalem, and Karin Laub and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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