WASHINGTON (AP) -- Gingerly trying to advance Mideast peace, President Barack Obama declared on Thursday the U.S. is a "stalwart ally" of Israel but challenged the Israelis to stop settlement construction in the disputed West Bank to help advance the long and painful road to peace with the Palestinians.
Obama's message came on the same day that Israel refused a demand to freeze all construction in the West Bank, land the Palestinians hope to claim for a future nation of their own. The president stuck to a hopeful tone, saying he had pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter only last week."I think it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," Obama said in the Oval Office, sitting alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Obama said Netanyahu needed time to work on the issue back home, and the U.S. president said he was not willing to base his decisions on a week-old conversation.
Obama and Abbas met privately before being joined by their delegations.
The U.S. president made clear he expected commitments to be upheld by the Palestinians, too, including enhanced security in the West Bank so that Israelis have confidence they're safe there. Obama said he asked Abbas to reduce anti-Israeli sentiments that can be easily stoked in schools, mosques and the public square.
Said Abbas: "We are fully committed to all of our obligations."
Obama, like predecessor George W. Bush, embraces a multifaceted Mideast peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Obama refused to set a timetable for such a nation but also noted he has not been slow to get involved in meeting with both sides and pushing the international community for help.
"We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentment on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now," Obama said. "We need to get this thing back on track."
Israel defied a surprisingly blunt U.S. demand that it freeze all building in West Bank Jewish settlements, saying Thursday it will press ahead with construction.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that President Barack Obama wants Israel to halt to all settlement construction - including "natural growth." She was referring to Israel's insistence that new construction is necessary to accommodate the expansion of families already living in existing settlements.
Government spokesman Mark Regev responded by saying "normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue." He confirmed that this meant some construction will continue in existing settlements.
Obama's administration has been more explicit in its criticism of Israeli settlement policy than its predecessor. The U.S. and much of the world consider the settlements an obstacle to peace because they are built on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.
More than 280,000 Jewish settlers live among more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Regev said the fate of existing settlements will be determined in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He said Israel has pledged to build no new settlements and to remove unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.
While Israel could flout U.S. opposition, it is wary of picking a fight with its closest and most important ally.
Israeli officials proposed a compromise earlier this week. In exchange for removing some 22 outposts, they would ask the U.S. to permit new construction in existing settlements. Clinton's remarks followed that proposal.
But even the limited step of removing outposts faces stiff opposition from the Israeli right. Settler news site Arutz Sheva reported Thursday that leading rabbis linked to the settlement movement had issued a call to soldiers to disobey orders to demolish the outposts.
"The holy Torah (scripture) prohibits taking part in any act of uprooting Jews from any part of our sacred land," the site quoted the rabbis' statement as saying.
The new Israeli and the U.S. leaders have strikingly different approaches to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu refuses to endorse Palestinian independence, a notion supported by Obama, his predecessor and the previous Israeli government.
Clinton said Obama told Netanyahu last week when the two met at the White House that the U.S. sees stopping settlements as key to a peace deal that would see a Palestinian state created alongside Israel.
"He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions," Clinton said. "We think it is in the best interests (of the peace process) that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly. ... And we intend to press that point."