By Matt Spetalnick
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama steps onto the world stage on Wednesday seeking to head off a looming U.N. showdown over Palestinian statehood and pull his Middle East policy back from the brink of diplomatic disaster.
Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama will address the U.N. General Assembly and meet Israel and Palestinian leaders at a critical juncture for his presidency and for America's credibility around the globe.
He faces the daunting challenge of reasserting Washington's influence in the Middle East by dissuading the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the Security Council in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.
The Obama administration and Israel both say 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.
"There's no short-cut to peace," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes insisted as he previewed a message Obama will deliver to the annual gathering of world leaders in New York. He is due to speak at around 10 a.m. EDT
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, it will inflame Arab distrust when Obama's outreach to the Muslim world is faltering.
U.S. failure to defuse the U.N. crisis 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 region.
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 thus far of a breakthrough.
Obama will urge Palestinian President Mahmoud 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 is expected to ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 is 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.
But there still may be some breathing space to prevent a diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations.
Under one emerging scenario, described by people familiar with the diplomacy, Abbas would submit his request for U.N. membership but the Security Council would delay action on it for weeks. The Quartet would then issue a finely-balanced statement giving each side enough political cover to resume talks.
Despite that, 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.
Obama still intends to use his appearance at the United Nations, where he has been warmly received in past years, to tout the U.S. role in a NATO air campaign that helped oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the U.S. crackdown on al Qaeda, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, and efforts to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Obama has drawn criticism for what has been seen as a slow and uneven response to the "Arab spring" revolts engulfing friends and foes alike, and Republicans say his "leading from behind" approach undermines U.S. global prestige.
Obama's vision of multilateral diplomacy helped him earn a Nobel Peace Prize after only 11 months in office and made him wildly popular in Europe and elsewhere. He promised a dramatic shift from what was widely perceived as the go-it-alone "cowboy diplomacy" of predecessor George W. Bush.
While many world leaders have welcomed the change in U.S. tone, the euphoria over Obama's collaborative approach has worn off, and questions about global economic worries have overshadowed "soft power" issues he previously espoused.
Obama will take the U.N. podium at a time when he is increasingly preoccupied with Americans' domestic concerns -- spurring a stagnant economy and curbing high unemployment -- considered critical to his 2012 re-election chances.
Though foreign policy has slipped down his policy agenda, he has been forced to wade back into Middle East diplomacy to try to contain the Palestinians' statehood ambitions.
Obama now finds himself in a quandary of opposing a move toward Palestinian self-determination even though he has repeatedly declared that the Palestinians deserve a path to eventual statehood.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Laura MacInnis, Alistair Lyon; Editing by Vicki Allen)