Barack Obama experienced the sobering realities of re-engaging with the Middle East peace process on Thursday when the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, openly challenged his line on Jewish settlements, telling him that they represented a direct obstacle to progress.

US President Barack Obama holds a joint press conference with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas beneath a banner showing Abbas and the late Palestinian later Yasser Arafat in Ramallah on March 21, 2013.

US President Barack Obama holds a joint press conference with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas beneath a banner showing Abbas and the late Palestinian later Yasser Arafat in Ramallah on March 21, 2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Robert Tait

Source: , Jerusalem

In a stark contrast to his smooth-running public appearances with Israeli leaders, the US president found himself on the back foot when forced to address the issue after a 90-minute meeting with Mr Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Mr Obama said he had told Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, that settlement expansion in east Jerusalem and the West Bank on land the Palestinians want for a future state was not “constructive” or “appropriate”.

But he did not repeat his previous call, issued in 2009, that building must cease, pleading instead for resumed talks on the “core issues” of establishing a sovereign Palestinian state and providing security for Israel.

“That’s not to say settlements aren’t important. That’s to say if we solve those two problems, the settlement issue will be resolved,” Mr Obama told a press conference in a rambling answer in which his normal fluency seemed to desert him.

Referring to Palestinian demands for a building freeze before re-starting talks, he admitted that settlements were “frustrating”.

But he added: “If the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in negotiations. It’s essential to work through this process even if we have concerns on both sides We can push through these things, not use them as excuses not to do anything.”

Mr Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was swift and uncompromising in his riposte. He called settlements a “hurdle and ignoble” and said their presence was killing the belief of a whole generation of Palestinians in a two-state solution.

“Everybody considers settlements more than a hurdle toward a two-state solution,” he said. The [United Nations] security council issued more than 13 resolutions, not only condemning settlements but demanding ending and removing them because they’re illegal. We’re demanding nothing other than the implementation of international law. The issue of settlements in clear.”

The press conference contained none of the bonhomie that existed between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu in a similar event the previous evening. Both men appeared stiff, formal and mostly unsmiling.

While reiterating his belief in a two-state solution, Mr Obama stressed that he had come with modest goals and without any specific peace plan.

“I think part of my goal during this trip is to have helpful discussions with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas on what they need and how they see a potential path and how it would be structured,” he said.

He and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, would draw conclusions from the visit and consider how to plot a future course, Mr Obama suggested.