UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – President Barack Obama told the United Nations on Wednesday there was no short cut to Middle East peace but Palestinians said they would press on with a request for U.N. recognition of their nascent state.
Amid frantic efforts to avert a diplomatic disaster, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the United Nations to grant the Palestinians the status of observer state, like the Vatican, while outlining a one-year roadmap to peace.
A year after telling the General Assembly he hoped to see a Palestinian state born by now, the U.S. president said creating such a state alongside Israel remained his goal.
“But the question isn’t the goal we seek — the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades,” he told the assembly.
With U.S. sway in the Middle East at stake, Obama had hoped to dissuade the Palestinians from asking the Security Council for statehood despite Israeli wrath and a U.S. veto threat.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems determined to pursue his plan to hand an application for statehood to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
Obama told Abbas in a meeting that U.N. action would not lead to a Palestinian state and that the United States would veto such a move in the Security Council, the White House said.
Asked if Abbas had given any sign he might change course, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said: “He has been very clear what his intent is … which is to go to the Council and to begin the process of securing membership there.”
Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said the two leaders had reiterated their positions, without any apparent result.
Obama, echoing Israel’s position, told the United Nations that only negotiations can lead to a Palestinian state.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” he said. “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.”
However, it is the failure of 20 years of U.S.-brokered negotiations that has driven Abbas to take his quest for a state to the United Nations — a ploy that could embarrass the United States by forcing it to protect its Israeli ally against the tide of world opinion.
Obama earlier met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and assured him of unwavering U.S. support.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to hold separate talks with Abbas and Netanyahu in the evening.
Although Obama said he had set out a new basis for negotiations in May, chances of reviving peace talks look bleak.
The two sides are far apart. The Palestinians are divided internally and Obama will not want to risk alienating Israel’s powerful U.S. support base by pressing for Israeli concessions as he enters a tough battle for re-election next year.
In more evidence of Obama’s domestic constraints, a U.S. Senate committee voted to prohibit aid to the Palestinians if they joined the United Nations.
France has grown frustrated at the lack of progress, saying negotiations should be widened to include a more hands-on role for Europe given the impasse in U.S.-led efforts.
“Let us cease our endless debates on the parameters and begin negotiations,” Sarkozy said. “The moment has come to build peace for Palestinian and Israeli children.”
Sarkozy said negotiations should begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security should be clinched within six months and a definitive agreement be reached within a year.
Rhodes said there was some “overlap” between Obama and Sarkozy on their Middle East peace ideas, but they differed on Palestinian membership of the United Nations.
The Palestinians see statehood as opening the way for negotiations between equals. Israel says the Palestinian move aims at delegitimizing the Jewish state.
Flag-waving Palestinians rallied in West Bank city squares to back the recourse to the United Nations.
The drama at the United Nations is playing out as Arab uprisings are transforming the Middle Eastern landscape.
Obama pledged support for Arab democratic change, called for more U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and urged Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations — twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.
Iran freed two Americans held for spying, in what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called a compassionate gesture before he addresses the United Nations on Thursday.
The Security Council could delay action on Abbas’ request, giving the mediating “Quartet” — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — more time to craft a declaration that could coax both sides back to the table.
A French presidential source said the Quartet was unlikely to issue such a declaration within the next three days.
A senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, said the Palestinians would give the Security Council “some time” to consider the statehood claim before they took it to the General Assembly, where Washington has no veto.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Obama’s speech was a disappointment, accusing him of being selective when upholding principles of freedom and self-determination.
“When it comes to Palestinians suffering from an oppressive foreign military occupation, somehow … these principles do not apply. They only apply when Arabs rebel against their own oppressive regime.”
Whatever happens at the United Nations, Palestinians will remain under Israeli occupation and any nominal state would lack recognized borders or real independence and sovereignty.
It is a measure of their desperation that they are persisting with an initiative that could incur financial retribution from Israel and the United States.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Ban asked governments to show solidarity in meeting “extraordinary challenges” for the world body, ranging from climate change to peacekeeping.
“Without resources, we cannot deliver,” he declared, pledging to streamline U.N. budgets to “do more with less.”