President Obama said Tuesday that Israel is not helping the cause of peace by restarting home construction in territory claimed by both Arabs and Israelis, a development that jeopardizes his efforts to ease tensions between the sides at a crucial moment.
"This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations," Obama said. "And I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side by side in peace with a sovereign Palestine."
Obama made the remarks a few hours after arriving in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, where he is set to deliver the second major speech Wednesday in his ongoing outreach to the Muslim world.
In the run-up to the long-awaited visit -– canceled twice due to emergencies on the home front – the White House has worked to keep the emphasis of the trip on its economic and security priorities and not on the fact that Obama is returning to his boyhood home. The fact that Obama once lived in Indonesia has spawned conspiracy theories that he is a closet Muslim, a public conversation his staff is not eager to fuel.
After keeping Jakarta on his travel itinerary despite an earthquake and a tsunami that occurred a few days ago, and then dodging a cloud of ash from the recent volcanic eruption, Obama finally made it to the archipelago Tuesday afternoon only to face tough questions about the issue the aggrieves so many Muslims around the world.
Obama managed to restart the stalled peace talks this fall, and the two sides met face to face a few times before Palestinian leaders called a halt to direct discussions after Israel lifted a freeze on settlement building in September.
On Monday, Israel gave the go-ahead to construction of 1,300 new homes in East Jerusalem, a decision met with a hailstorm of disapproval from around the world.
At a press conference at the presidential palace, Obama said these steps break the trust between the negotiators but he pledged to keep pushing for peace.
"We're going to keep working on it," he said, "because it is in the world's interest."