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UPDATE 1-Obama Seeks to Save Mideast Policy from U.N. Debacle

Wednesday, 21 Sep 2011 10:48 AM

 

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* Obama to meet Palestinian and Israeli leaders separately

* U.S. pledge to veto Palestinian move in focus

* Diplomats scramble for breakthrough but little progress (Updates with Obama speech)

By Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pressed Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday to relaunch peace talks as he made a last-ditch attempt to avert a U.N. crisis over Palestinian statehood and pull his Middle East policy back from the brink of diplomatic disaster.

Addressing world leaders at the opening of a U.N. General Assembly session, Obama -- whose earlier peace initiatives accomplished little -- put the onus on the two sides to break a yearlong impasse and get back to the negotiating table.

"There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations," Obama said.

Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama is wading into Middle East diplomacy at a critical juncture for his presidency and America's credibility around the globe.

He 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 U.N. Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.

There was widespread skepticism about Obama's chances for success -- not least because of deeply entrenched differences between the two sides -- and he may not be able to do much more than contain the damage.

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.

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, the United States will inflame Arab distrust when Obama's outreach to the Muslim world is already faltering.

Obama will hold separate talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the U.N. sidelines.

Taking note of deep frustrations over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he said: "Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state."

With the looming showdown overshadowing the rest of Obama's U.N. agenda, failure to defuse the situation 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 Middle East.

Obama also used his wide-ranging speech to tout his support for democratic change sweeping the Arab world, urge further U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and call on Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations -- twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Alistair Lyon; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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