U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday rejected Palestinian plans to seek U.N. blessing for statehood and urged a return to peace talks with Israel as he tried to head off a looming diplomatic disaster.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Obama—whose earlier peace efforts accomplished little—insisted Middle East peace “will not come through statements and resolutions” at the world body and put the onus on the two sides to break a yearlong impasse.
“There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work,” Obama told an annual gathering of world leaders.
Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama is wading into Middle East diplomacy at a critical juncture for his presidency and America’s credibility around the globe.
He faced the daunting test of Washington’s eroding influence in the region in his last-ditch bid to dissuade the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the U.N. Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.
Obama attempted to strike a delicate balance as he took the U.N. podium. He sought to reassure Palestinians he was not abandoning his pledge to help them achieve eventual statehood while also placating any Israeli concerns about Washington’s commitment to their security.
Members of the General Assembly, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is high, listened politely but had only a muted response to Obama’s 36-minute speech.
There was widespread skepticism about Obama’s chances for success—not least because of deeply entrenched differences between the two sides—and he may not be able to do much more than contain the damage.
The Obama administration says that only direct peace talks can lead to peace with the Palestinians, who in turn say almost two decades of fruitless negotiation has left them no choice but to turn to the world body.
Obama followed his speech with a round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who echoed the president’s assertion that renewed negotiations were the only path to a peace deal but offered no new ideas how to get back to the table. He said, however, that the Palestinians’ U.N. statehood effort “will not succeed.”
Signalling European patience was also wearing thin after years of halting U.S.-led diplomacy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed an ambitious timetable to resume peace talks within a month and achieve a definitive deal in a year.
The drama over the Palestinian U.N. bid is playing out as U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders all struggle with the fallout from Arab uprisings that are raising new political tensions across the Middle East.
It also comes as Israel finds itself more isolated than it has been in decades and confronts Washington with the risk that, by again shielding its close ally, the United States will inflame Arab distrust when Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is already faltering.
Taking note of deep frustrations over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he said: “Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.”
He was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later on the U.N. sidelines.
With the looming showdown overshadowing the rest of Obama’s U.N. agenda, failure to defuse the situation will not only mark a diplomatic debacle for Obama but also serve as a stark sign of the new limits of American clout in the Middle East.
Obama also used his wide-ranging speech to tout his support for democratic change sweeping the Arab world, urge further U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and call on Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations—twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.
Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators—were scrambling for a compromise but with little sign of a breakthrough.
The speech offered no new prescriptions for Israeli-Palestinian peace from Obama, who laid out his clearest markers for a final deal in May and angered Israel by declaring its pre-war 1967 borders as the starting point for any future negotiations.
Obama will urge Abbas face-to-face against going through with his plan to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a membership application on Friday, setting the stage for a Security Council vote that the United States says it will block.
In separate talks, Obama had been expected to ask Netanyahu—who has had strained relations with the U.S. president—to help coax Abbas back to negotiations and also curb dangerous new tensions with Egypt and Turkey, two of Washington’s top regional partners.
But Obama was considered unlikely to lean too hard on the hawkish Israeli leader for concessions to the Palestinians, mindful he cannot afford to alienate Israel’s broad base of support among American voters as he seeks re-election in 2012.
Most analysts remain skeptical that the latest diplomacy by Obama and others will be enough to spur serious negotiations after earlier efforts hit a dead end.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Alistair Lyon; Editing by Doina Chiacu