Struggling to head off a divisive showdown on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. later this week, President Obama on Wednesday told the world body there can be “no shortcut” to peace in the Middle East and called on other countries to insist both sides negotiate a solution rather than have it imposed by the international community.
The target of the plea was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who on Friday is scheduled to ask the U.N. Security Council to declare a Palestinian state. Mr. Abbas faced furious lobbying by the U.S. and other countries, who were begging him not to push the issue at a delicate time for the region.
“There is no shortcut to a conflict that has endured for years,” Mr. Obama said as he addressed the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. “Peace will not come through statements at the U.N. — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side.”
The brewing crisis overshadowed all other business at the United Nations, and even dominated matters in Washington, where Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill showed stark unity in backing Israel against the Palestinian move.
Following Mr. Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his address to the U.N., begged for a delay in the Palestinian Authority’s request, arguing instead that both sides be given a year to reach a final agreement that would establish two states, with security guarantees for Israel.
But it was the U.S. effort to head off Mr. Abbas’s move that drew the most attention, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress joined forces with the White House and scrambled to plead with Palestinians not to seek a U.N. declaration, which all sides said could be a messy denouement.
The U.S. has signaled that it will use its Security Council veto to block Mr. Abbas’s request, should it get that far.
The Associated Press reported that officials were pitching a deal to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that would establish boundaries at pre-1967 war lines, though with land exchanges, and would require Palestinians to accept the existence of the Jewish state. Under the deal, Mr. Abbas would still petition the Security Council on Friday, but he would not immediately press for a vote, averting a showdown for now.
Short of an independent state, Mr. Abbas also could ask the U.N. General Assembly to grant it a higher status.
Mr. Obama, in his remarks, didn’t offer any alternative to the negotiations. Unlike Mr. Sarkozy, he didn’t make any specific demands on either side going forward, though he did deliver a vehement defense of Israel, demanding that other U.N. member nations consider the matter from their perspective.
“Let us be honest with ourselves. Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” the president said. “Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off the map.”
Mr. Obama reaffirmed his stance in a later meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he recognized Mr. Obama and other world leaders were “under enormous pressure” and praised him for taking a firm stand against Mr. Abbas’ move.
“This is a badge of honor. And I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor,” Mr. Netanyahu said as both men briefly faced reporters during their meeting.
Mr. Obama later met with Mr. Abbas, though reporters were shut out of that one.
Mr. Netanyahu said he assumes the “automatic majority is against Israel,” and that Palestinians were trying to impose a solution that gives them a state without having to make concessions to Israel on security.
The issue has become both a diplomatic and a political issue for Mr. Obama, who recently saw a Democratic candidate for Congress lose a special election in New York over what analysts said was worry among Jewish voters that the president was not backing Israel strongly enough.
After his defense at the U.N., Jewish advocacy groups vociferously praised the president for insisting that Palestinians negotiate a solution rather than have it imposed.
Outside of the Palestinian situation, Mr. Obama used his address at the U.N. to call out regimes in Iran, Syria and Yemen for special condemnation.
Even as he chided the U.N. for its potential action on Israel, Mr. Obama called on the world body’s members to take a stronger stand in following the U.S. lead in trying to isolate those regimes.
“The question for us is clear,” the president said. “Will we stand with the Syrian people or with their oppressors?”