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Obama: Israel prevents another Holocaust

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President Obama visited Yad Vashem accompanied by the museum's chairman Avner Shalev and former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau. [Amos Ben Gershom/GPO photo]

JERUSALEM — Israel does not owe its existence to the Holocaust but its existence prevents another one from happening, U.S. President Obama said on the third and final day of his first presidential visit to Israel.

"Here we hope," Obama said on Friday at Yad Vashem's Hall of the Children after touring the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.  

"Because after you walk through these halls, after you pass through the darkness, there is light -- a glorious view of the Jerusalem Forest, with the sun shining over the historic homeland of the Jewish people; a fulfillment of the prophecy: 'you shall live again…upon your own soil'," he said. "Here, on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear:  The State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust.  But with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again."

Obama, in a 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, decried the proliferation of Holocaust denial in some Muslim sectors. His phrasing in that speech suggested to some Jewish and Israeli leaders that he was predicating Israel's existence on the Holocaust, although Obama's audes denied that was his intention. One of the aims of this trip has been to roll back that impression.

Before visiting the museum, Obama laid wreaths on the graves of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and that of the late Israeli premier Yitzchak Rabin who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

At the grave, Obama met Rabin’s daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, and two grandchildren of the late Israel leader, whom Obama called “a remarkable man."  In keeping with Jewish tradition, Obama also placed on the grave a pebble, which Obama brought from the foot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Obama  is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one more time before visiting Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity. From there, he will fly to Jordan for a meeting with the country’s king, Abdullah II.

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President Obama implied in Ramallah that a settlement freeze should not be a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

He made the statement Thursday at a news conference following a long meeting in the West Bank city with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“If the only way to begin the conversation is that we get everything right at the outset, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do we structure a state of Palestine and how do you provide Israel confidence about its security,” Obama said. “That’s not to say settlements are not important.”

Early in his first term, in 2009, Obama called on Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank; Israel partially acquiesced after initially resisting. Since that 10-month freeze expired, during which little diplomatic activity took place, Abbas has demanded another freeze in order to resume talks.

At Thursday’s news conference, on the second day of Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, Abbas did not explicitly call for a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, though he didn’t drop the call, either.

“We are asking nothing outside the framework of international agreements,” Abbas said. “It is the duty of Israel to at least halt the activity. Each side will know its territory” after peace talks are concluded.

Obama and Abbas both called for a two-state solution. Obama stressed that an agreement must come out of direct negotiations rather than other forums, an implicit criticism of Abbas’ request last year that the United Nations recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.

“We seek an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” Obama said. "The only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”

Obama also harshly criticized Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. In the hours before Obama traveled to Ramallah, several rockets fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli city of Sderot.

“We condemn this violation of the important cease-fire,” the president said. Hamas, he said, is “more interested in tearing Israel down than in building Palestine up.”

Earlier Thursday, Obama visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as some recent Israeli high-tech innovations. Later in the afternoon in Jerusalem, he will address a crowd of Israelis, including many students.

After he leaves Israel on Friday, Obama is scheduled to visit Jordan.

Below, scenes of President Obama in Israel.

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