Barack Obama has pressed Palestinians and Israelis to resume peace talks as he made a last-ditch attempt to avert a diplomatic crisis over the Palestinian Authority’s bid for full membership of the United Nations.
Addressing world leaders at the opening of the UN’s general assembly session, Mr Obama stressed that a lasting solution to the long-running conflict would not be reached through “statements and resolutions at the United Nations”.
"There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work,” he said.
“Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security, on refugees and Jerusalem.
“Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted. That is the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their differences. That is the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state, and that is the path to a Palestinian state.
The president hailed the “extraordinary transformation” brought by the Arab spring and observed how at the same event a year ago Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were all represented by authoritarian leaders now rejected by their people.
He praised the UN for living up to its charter to guarantee peace by protecting Libyan civilians through resolution 1973. He praised the institution’s resolution in the Ivory Coast and South Sudan, which saw the people’s will triumph in an election and a referendum.
But all ears in the hall at the UN’s New York headquarters were tuned to his remarks on the Palestinian issue.
Mr Obama faces the daunting challenge of reasserting Washington's influence in the region by dissuading the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the UN Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.
He said the United States remained as committed as ever to establishing an independent Palestinian state, but would never flinch from defending Israel’s security.
His public line towards the Palestinians was a little softer than expected, and he refrained from issuing an open threat to use the US veto to block the PA’s statehood bid.
But his appearance at the annual gathering of world leaders started a day of intense personal diplomacy where his intentions will be made plain. Mr Obama due to hold talks with David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
US officials are conceding that they probably cannot prevent Mr Abbas from presenting a request to the UN Security Council for full Palestinian membership. But the Americans, British and French are urging the Palestinians to agree to a delay of at least several months before the issue is heard.
In the meantime, it is hoped the Israelis could be brought back to the negotiating table. Talks towards the creation of a fully-fledged Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza collapsed in acrimony in September 2010.
The Obama administration has pledged to veto any Palestinian statehood bid, arguing that only direct peace negotiations with Israel, not a UN vote, would allow the Palestinians to achieve the benefits of statehood. It is however wants to avoid using its veto at the Security Council because doing so would contradict the ideals of the Arab spring it has so conspicuously supported.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN called the Palestinian push for recognition by the world body "an unwise and diversionary gambit".
“There is not short cut to statehood, no magic wand or piece of paper that can be waved at the UN that changes conditions on the ground for the Palestinian people,” she told CBS. “Even the Palestinians know that they have to get back to negotiating table or there won’t be a Palestinian state.”
She said that gap in expectations among Palestinians created by the push for statehood risked destabilizing the region, because the day after the application was submitted, nothing would change.
Opening the general assembly, when leaders and delegates from the 193 members of the UN converge on New York, Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, pleaded for a new international effort to break the Middle East "stalemate".
But he did not back the Palestinian statehood bid. "We have long agreed that Palestinians deserve a state, Israel needs security, Both want peace.
"We pledge our unrelenting efforts to help achieve that peace through a negotiated settlement," he said.