RAMALLAH, West Bank -- President Obama, visiting the Israeli-occupied West Bank, appeared to move closer to the Israeli position on Thursday regarding resumption of long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, stopping short of insisting on a halt to Israel's settlement expansion as he had done early in his first term.
Hours after rockets from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza hit southern Israel, Mr. Obama met with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on the second day of Mr. Obama's Middle East trip, and challenged both sides to resume face-to-face talks, pledging that the United States "would do our part."
Mr. Obama condemned the rocket attacks, which came in violation of a three-month cease-fire, but he insisted that the Israelis should not use violence as an excuse to avoid negotiations, no more than the Palestinians should insist that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a condition.
"If we're going to be successful, part of what we're going to have to do is get out of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress," Mr. Obama said in a news conference with Mr. Abbas. "Both sides are going to have to think anew."
Mr. Abbas reiterated his demand that Israel halt settlement construction, but he did not explicitly cite that as a condition for entering into direct talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Talks have basically been stalled since 2010.
"It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity, so we can speak of the issues," Mr. Abbas said in Arabic, speaking through a translator. "The issue of settlements is clear: we never gave up our vision, whether now or previously."
Mr. Abbas, who met with Mr. Obama for more than an hour at the fortresslike headquarters of the Palestinian Authority here, did not condemn the rocket attacks in his statement.
Majlis Shura al-Mujahedeen, a Salafi group, claimed responsibility for the rockets, saying in a statement that they were a message from "Bin Laden soldiers" to Mr. Obama that Americans should not feel secure as long as Muslims do not.
For Mr. Obama, even a brief foray to the West Bank on the second day of his trip was enough to plunge him back into the diplomatic nuances and perils of Middle East peacemaking.
What was surprising, given how much Mr. Obama appeared to give up on the peace process at the end of his first term, was how ready he seemed to take up the challenge once again of trying to broker a deal that creates a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.
"I absolutely believe it is still possible, but it is very difficult," Mr. Obama said. "If we can get direct negotiations started again, I believe the shape of a potential deal is there."
Gesturing to his new secretary of state, John Kerry, Mr. Obama said the United States would resume its role of trying to bring together the two sides -- a painstaking process that has previously involved adopting measures to get over decades of mistrust.
Mr. Obama repeated his criticism of Jewish settlements, particularly in the strategically sensitive area of the West Bank known as the E1 zone. If the Israeli government were to go through with its announcement that it plans to develop that area, east of Jerusalem, Mr. Obama said it would be "very difficult to square with a two-state solution."
But Mr. Obama did not explicitly call for a halt to such expansion as a condition for peace talks to resume.
The rockets from Gaza, which caused no injuries, exploded in the courtyard of a house in the border town Sderot, which Mr. Obama had visited as a presidential candidate in 2008 and which he often cites as an example of the terror inflicted by these rockets.
"I've stood in Sderot, and met with children who simply want to grow up free from fear," he said in a news conference Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu.
There were other signs of a chillier welcome for Mr. Obama in the West Bank than he received a day earlier in Jerusalem. A small band of Palestinians staged an anti-Obama protest on a hillside east of Jerusalem on Wednesday, unfurling a banner that said, "Obama: You promised hope and change, you gave us colonies and apartheid."
Still, the meeting came amid new signs that Mr. Abbas is eager to return to negotiations with the Israelis. A draft copy of his talking points for the session with Mr. Obama, obtained by The New York Times, suggested that Mr. Abbas was ready to soften his long-held demand that Mr. Netanyahu halt all building of Jewish settlements as precondition for the Palestinians returning to talks with the Israelis.
If Mr. Netanyahu were to assure Mr. Abbas privately that building would be halted while negotiations were under way, the draft said, that would be sufficient. Palestinians officials cautioned Wednesday evening that the talking points for Mr. Abbas had not been completed.
The president's visit, administration officials said, is part of a concerted push to show American support for the Palestinian Authority, which has been hamstrung by a fiscal crisis and fighting a loss of credibility since its Islamic militant rival, Hamas, won Palestinian elections in Gaza in 2006 and seized control of the territory a year later.
On Wednesday in Jerusalem, Mr. Obama noted that last year was the first year in four decades in which not a single Israeli citizen was killed in a terrorist act originating in the West Bank.
But Mr. Obama has also muted his call for Israel to halt the construction of Jewish settlements. In his speech to the Muslim world in 2009, he said this "construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
In Jerusalem on Wednesday, Mr. Obama did not use the word settlements when he offered an explanation of why his first-term peacemaking efforts had failed. Mr. Obama spent Thursday morning at the Israel Museum viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew parchments that testify to the ancient link of the Jewish people to this land.
Pressed about settlements by a Palestinian reporter, Mr. Obama described them as "inappropriate." But he also said he understood that the politics of settlements in Israel were complicated.
Mr. Netanyahu has been calling for a resumption of peace talks with Mr. Abbas, without preconditions, but has warned in the past that any practical reconciliation between Mr. Abbas and Hamas would stymie any progress with Israel.
After the rocket fire, a senior Israeli official said: "We will be watching very closely today to see if President Abbas condemns this rocket attack against Israeli civilians. Last year in the face of similar attacks he refused to condemn these acts by terrorists in Gaza."
The rockets were the first to land in a built-up area since November. A single rocket was fired by Gaza militants in late February and landed harmlessly on a road outside the city of Ashkelon. That was apparently a response to the death of a Palestinian prisoner in disputed circumstances in an Israeli jail. Israel temporarily closed a commercial goods crossing into Gaza in response and announced a similar measure on Thursday.
From the Palestinian perspective, the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is one of the contentious issues blocking a return to peace effort and Mr. Abbas renewed a demand on Thursday for the Israeli authorities to "stop settlements in order to discuss all our issues and their concerns."
Sara Haziza, 47, said she was cleaning her home in Sderot for the upcoming Passover holiday around 7:15 a.m. when she heard the familiar siren warning of an incoming rocket. She said she grabbed her 8-year-old daughter, Alian, from bed and ran to the so-called safe room, where they heard an explosion very close by as the rocket landed in their yard and sprayed their home with shrapnel.
"After months of calm it is a harsh reminder," Ms. Haziza said in an interview. "This is no way to live. Announcing 'no casualties' is wrong because you do not understand what happens later to us, coping with panic and fear -- fear in which we raise our children.
"I hope that President Obama, who visited us before, understands what kind of impossible life we have here," she added.
Ms. Haziza's husband, Yossi, 53, said his message to the president would be: "Think what you would have done if your citizens would have gone under rocket attack like we do here. That is precisely what we have to do here to stop it with your help."
Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris, Isabel Kershner and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem, Fares Akram from Gaza and Rina Castelnuovo from Sderot, Israel.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.