Obama: No shortcut to peace in Middle East

AP News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 3:02 PM
Obama: No shortcut to peace in Middle East

President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that there could be no shortcut to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as he sought to head off a United Nations showdown over Palestinian statehood that's becoming a thorny diplomatic problem for his administration.

"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations _ if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now," the president told the U.N. General Assembly. "Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side.

"Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians _ not us _ who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them."

Obama forcefully defended his opposition to the Palestinians' plan to seek statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council, though without directly calling on the Palestinians to drop the bid, or offering a clear path forward in its place. With the limits of U.S. influence on the moribund peace process never more clear, Obama had no new demands for the Israelis, either, beyond repeating his position that both sides deserved their own state and security and should return to the negotiating table to achieve it.

Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats were working furiously to get Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to moderate his plans, but it was not clear they would be successful.

"Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted," Obama said. "That is the path to a Palestinian state."

The push by the Palestinians threatens to isolate Israel even further, and divide the U.S. from allies in the Arab world who support the statehood resolution.

For Obama, it would be another blow to his tattered hopes of brokering a Middle East peace. And it would amount to a political setback at home, where Republican opponents say Obama hasn't sufficiently supported Israel, and accuse him of mishandling Middle East diplomacy.

After the speech, which was friendly to Israel's position, Obama went into a meeting with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. There he affirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security. Later in the day he was to meet with Abbas, where Obama was expected to privately ask him to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after Abbas delivers a formal letter of intent to the U.N. on Friday.

At the same time, U.S. officials are conceding that they probably cannot prevent Abbas from moving forward with a request to the U.N. Security Council for full Palestinian membership. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any Palestinian statehood bid, arguing that only direct peace negotiations, not a U.N. vote, would allow the Palestinians to achieve the benefits of statehood.

It's a much different situation than Obama had hoped for a year ago, when he wanted to herald by now a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. U.S. persuasion and pressure failed to achieve that result and now peace again looks distant. Obama put the blame for that on Israel and the Palestinians.

"Despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences," Obama said.

Obama's remarks on Israel and the Palestinians came in a speech that also swept up the convulsions of what Obama called "a remarkable year." He talked about the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship in Libya, the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and the emergence of South Sudan as the world's newest nation.

"The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open," Obama said. "Dictators are on notice. Technology is putting power in the hands of the people."

The president talked of hope for the future, and a striving for freedom in "a time of transformation."

Yet the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians looked as intractable as ever.

A new approach being considered would see the "quartet" of Mideast peace mediators _ the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia _ issue a statement addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns and setting a timetable for a return to the long-stalled peace talks, officials close to the diplomatic talks said.

Israel would have to accept its pre-1967 borders with land exchanges as the basis for a two-state solution, and the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel's Jewish character if they were to reach a deal quickly, officials close to the talks said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy.

In an appearance with Netanyahu before their private meeting, Obama reiterated his call for direct peace talks as the only solution, saying "actions in the United Nations will mean neither statehood or self-determination for the Palestinians."

By Obama's side, Netanyahu condemned the Palestinian move, calling it a "shortcut" that "will not succeed."

"I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state in the international community," Netanyahu said, "but they're not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return."

Netanyahu also praised Obama's stance on Israel, an endorsement that could help the U.S. president fend off criticism from Republicans.

"I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle _ which is also I think the right position to achieve peace _ I think this is a badge of honor. And I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor," Netanyahu said.

Obama was welcomed to the U.N. hall with polite applause from the delegations gathered for his address. There was little response from the audience throughout his speech, even on the hot-button issue of Middle East peace.

Facing a partisan struggle over deficits and jobs at home, Obama spoke to problems in the world economy, and made a brief plug for his new plans to create jobs, already running into Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

"We must take urgent and coordinated action once more," he said. "In a global economy, nations will rise, or fall, together."

But Obama returned repeatedly to one theme: "Peace is hard," he said several times. "Peace is hard, but we know that it is possible."