President Obama more closely aligned himself with the Israeli government’s terms for resuming peace talks with the Palestinians Thursday as he continued his visit to the region. Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Obama urged Palestinians to drop their longstanding demand for Israel to halt settlement construction on Palestinian land as a precondition for talks.
President Obama: "What I shared with President Abbas, and I will share with the Palestinian people, is that if the expectation is, is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations. So I think it’s important for us to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides."
Obama had previously backed the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze at the start of his first term. On Thursday, Obama said the Israeli settlements are not "constructive" or "appropriate," but he stopped short of calling them illegal, a point stressed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
President Mahmoud Abbas: "Regarding the issue of settlements, it is not only our perception that settlements are illegal, but it is a global perspective. Everybody considers settlements not only a hurdle, but even more than a hurdle, towards the two-state solution."
President Obama gave a key address to Israeli students in Jerusalem on Thursday, where he was interrupted by a heckler. The protester was an Arab-Israeli student named Rabiyah Aid. He told the Israeli newspaper Ynet he had called out to Obama: "Have you really come to promote the peace process or to provide Israel with more weapons to kill the Palestinian people? On your way here did you see the [West Bank] fence or the killer of Rachel Corrie?" Rachel Corrie was the U.S. student crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza on March 16, 2003, while attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian home.
During his speech to Israeli students, President Obama touted U.S. investment in Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and reiterated his support for Israel to "defend itself." He also called for peace under a two-state solution and acknowledged the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
President Obama: "Put yourself in their [Palestinians’] shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day."
President Obama also invoked the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran during his speech, repeating his past statement that "all options are on the table."
Iran’s top leader said Thursday he is not opposed to direct talks with the United States to resolve tensions over its alleged nuclear program. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he is "not optimistic" about the results if the United States continues to impose crippling sanctions on Iran. Khamenei said, "What [U.S. officials] mean by talks is that we sit down and talk until Iran accepts their viewpoint."
At least 42 people are dead following a massive explosion inside a mosque in the Syrian capital of Damascus. More than 80 people were wounded. Among those killed was the country’s leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, who was a top supporter of President Bashar al-Assad.
The United Nations is launching an investigation into allegations of a chemical weapons attack near the Syrian city of Aleppo. Both the Syrian government and rebels had called for a U.N. probe with each accusing the other of carrying out an attack. So far no evidence has emerged chemical weapons were actually used. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the U.N. inquiry Thursday.
Ban Ki-moon: "The investigation mission is to look into the specific incident brought to my attention by the Syrian government. I am, of course, aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons. My announcement should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity."
The Obama administration is reportedly poised to shift control of its secret drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon. The move follows mounting scrutiny of targeted killings as the program’s architect, John Brennan, was confirmed to head the CIA. While the report follows calls for greater transparency in the drone war, some note the killings could easily remain covert under military control. The Pentagon already oversees drones in Afghanistan and Somalia, and in Yemen, along with the CIA.
On Thursday, a former top military aide to President Obama expressed doubts about the U.S. drone war, saying it could be fueling extremism. Speaking in Chicago, General James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted." Cartwright also expressed doubts that problems with the drone program could be fixed by moving it "from one part of the government to another."
Three people are dead after a U.S. marine shot two colleagues at a base in Quantico, Virginia, before turning the gun on himself. The shooter was a staff member at the base’s Officer Candidates School. Neither he nor the victims have been publicly identified.
Vice President Joe Biden is continuing to push for an assault weapons ban even after it was dropped by Senate Democrats from a pending gun-control package due to a lack of support. Biden was joined Thursday by relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, as he spoke at New York’s City Hall alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Vice President Joe Biden: "For all those who say we shouldn’t and can’t ban assault weapons, for all those who say the politics is too hard, how can they say that, when you take a look at those 20 beautiful babies and what happened to them, and those six teachers and administrators? This same young man, he not only came loaded with a — armed with an assault weapon, a weapon of war, he came loaded with one 30-round magazine after another, one after another. An estimated 150 bullets were fired by this young man. For all those who say we shouldn’t or couldn’t ban high-capacity magazines, I just ask them one question: Think about Newtown."
House lawmakers have approved a stopgap measure to keep the government funded through the end of September, averting a potential shutdown next week. The bill already passed by the Senate maintains $85 billion in automatic spending cuts under the so-called "sequester." But it gives the military and some domestic agencies flexibility to shift funds in order to cope.
The top telecommunications regulator in the United States, Julius Genachowski, is expected to announce today that he is stepping down as head of the Federal Communications Commission. Genachowski’s resignation will leave two seats open on the five-member FCC after Commissioner Robert McDowell announced he is stepping down in a few weeks.
Newly emerged evidence appears to show members of the New York City Police Department explicitly using race as a factor to determine who should be stopped and searched. Critics of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy have long noted nearly 90 percent of those targeted are African American or Latino. But an audio recording played during the trial for a lawsuit challenging the policy shows an official calling for police to stop "the right people." Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack is a commanding officer at the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx, a precinct that has recorded a high number of stops. He was caught on recording by Officer Pedro Serrano, who asks him who the "right people" are, exactly.
Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack: "This is about stopping the right people, the right place, the right location. Again, take Mott Haven, where we had the most problems."
Officer Pedro Serrano: "Right."
Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack: "And most problems we had there was robberies and grand larcenies.
Officer Pedro Serrano: "And who are those people robbing?"
Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack: "The problem was, what, male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male blacks, 14 to 20, 21."
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