UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Grasping for peace, President Barack Obama on Thursday challenged a pessimistic world to overcome decades of shattered promises and help Israelis and Palestinians close a historic deal within a year. “This time will be different,” he declared, offering a now-or-never choice between Mideast stability and perpetual bloodshed.
To a hushed audience of global leaders, Obama made Mideast peace the dominant theme of his yearly address to the U.N. General Assembly, a sign of the fragile state of the latest talks and the importance he attaches to their success. Nearly every other topic of his international agenda was shoved to the margins, save for a vigorous call for support of human rights.
In a message to allies and foes alike, Obama devoted the final passage of his speech to a need for people to live freely, and he warned that “we will call out those who suppress ideas.” While he spoke of tyranny by the Taliban and in North Korea, he did not single out allies that the U.S. has accused of repressing their people, such as Russia and China.
With fresh Mideast peace talks seemingly on the brink of collapse, Obama took on skeptics directly. He challenged Israelis and Palestinians to make compromises, exhorted supporters on both sides to show real backing instead of empty talk and painted a grim picture of what will happen if the current effort is consigned to the long list of failed attempts.
“If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state,” Obama said. “Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors. … More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences instead of our common humanity.”
The speech came amid a wider burst of presidential diplomacy in New York. Obama met at length with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao over U.S. contentions that China’s currency is undervalued, but he emerged with little evident progress.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the tone for the meetings when he implored leaders to show more respect to each other and bring the world together. He warned of a “politics of polarization” — a term that on a different level also could fit the situation in the U.S.
Twenty months in office, Obama no longer made a point of breaking away from George W. Bush and embracing the multilateral approach of the United Nations, as he did in his first address last year before this world gathering. The record of the White House is now his to defend. He did so repeatedly, particularly U.S. efforts to avoid a global economic catastrophe.
The commander in chief for two wars, Obama made spare mention of either one. He reminded the world that he was winding down the divisive conflict in Iraq and accelerating the fight against extremists in Afghanistan. Yet there was not a major emphasis on terrorism or religious tolerance.
On the pressing security threat of Iran, Obama again extended a diplomatic hand. But he insisted the government there must prove to the world that its nuclear pursuits are for peaceful energy, not weaponry, or it will face further consequences.
Iran recently has indicated interest in restarting talks with the West, and on Wednesday the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany offered another chance to enter negotiations. Iranian state TV quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was in New York, as saying Iran was ready to resume the talks but the negotiations must be fair.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed an afternoon session of the assembly. At one point he said that some in the world have speculated that Americans were actually behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks and that they were staged in an attempt to assure Israel’s survival. At that, the U.S. delegation walked out.
The search for Mideast peace always tests the limits of U.S. presidential power, and this time is no different. There were no signs of a breakthrough in New York and, unlike last year, no meeting among Obama and the key players.
Obama is serving as an invested broker in Mideast peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are working toward an ambitious deal that would settle decades of issues within a year. The goals include the creation of an independent Palestinian state and security for Israel.
But direct talks between the leaders, which just resumed three weeks ago in Washington, have stalled over the impending end of an Israeli freeze on West Bank settlement construction.
Obama challenged Israel to relent, calling for the moratorium to be extended, knowing that would help keep Abbas at the table. “Talks should press on until completed,” Obama said as his administration worked to hold them together.
Separately, senior Palestinian officials said Thursday that their side would consider an expected U.S.-brokered compromise on Israeli settlement-building.
On a broader level, Obama summoned the world to show leadership, and he showed as much impatience over the familiar Mideast grievances and the latest obstacles as do skeptics of the process. He implored everyone to stop wasting time and drew a rare round of applause by saying there could be an agreement to secure a Palestinian state by next September’s U.N. gathering.
“We can say that this time will be different — that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way,” Obama said.
Netanyahu did not attend, and Israel’s seat in the grand U.N. hall sat empty because it was a Jewish holiday. Abbas was present, listening to the president through a translator’s earphone. Obama did not mention the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist.
In calling on the world to get more involved, Obama assigned responsibilities to nations beyond those at the negotiating table. He made a particular plea for “friends of the Palestinians” to support the creation of a new state providing political and financial support, and to “stop trying to tear Israel down.”
An attentive audience packed the hall to hear Obama speak for just more than a half-hour, twice his allotted time. Some dignitaries took pictures with their cell phones.
The speech was the centerpiece of a day in which Obama also met individually with Chinese and Japanese leaders and introduced first Lady Michelle Obama at a meeting of Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative.
Obama didn’t publicly mention the heated diplomatic clash over Japan’s arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near islands both Japan and China claim as their own. But he made clear that the U.S.-Japan alliance is crucial to stability in Asia and to both U.S. and Japanese security.
Obama’s capping argument was for open civil societies across the globe: freedom of assembly, of the press, of the Internet. He said no government delivers more for people than democracy, echoing a frequent U.N. message of his predecessor.
“The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it,” Obama said. “It will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.”