At a news conference in Ramallah Thursday morning, President Obama appeared to move closer to Israel on two key points.
First, he did not call Israeli settlement activity "illegitimate," which was his administration''s previous position. Rather, he said it was unhelpful, a far softer line that is much easier for Israelis to swallow.
Second, he completely undercut the Palestinians' argument that they can't come to the bargaining table because of continuing Israeli settlement activity. Obama seemed clearly to be calling for unconditional negotiations, though he did not use the word specifically. He explained to Palestinians that one can't ask for the fruits of negotiations before they even start.
This tilt toward the Israeli view may be smaller than it appears if, behind closed doors, Obama is pushing the Netanyahu government toward some sort of construction freeze. But Obama's comments appeared to me to reflect an understanding that the Palestinian demand for a complete freeze on new settlement, including even in Jerusalem, will make talks impossible. So his comments in Ramallah represent a new position for his administration and a rejection of the previous approach — and an abandonment of his obsession with settlements — associated with the administration's former special envoy, George Mitchell.