UNITED NATIONS - 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.
After the speech, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who thanked the president for endorsing direct talks with Palestinians and speaking out against any United Nations bid to declare a Palestinian state on its own.
With Obama at his side, Netanyahu said Wednesday the Palestinian bid to appeal directly to the U.N. is a short cut that "will not succeed."
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 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.
Several times as Obama spoke, Abbas, put his forehead in one hand.
Under Obama’s tenure, he has had to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue before the General Assembly. Three times he has largely failed.
In 2009, his first visit to the U.N., he was forced to publicly abandon his call for a full freeze of settlements in the West Bank, when it was clear Israel ws immovable. Since then, Palestinians have largely balked at sitting down in peace talks.
Last year, Obama gave a passionate call for Palestinian statehood within the next year, to be recognized, he said, in the United Nations — the very same effort he is now trying to end.
“We should reach for what’s best within ourselves,” Mr. Obama told the General Assembly last year. “If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
Today, Obama tried to acknowledge the shift head on: “One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine,” he said. “I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own.”
“But what I also said,” Mr. Obama added, “is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves."
Obama had to address the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue he made a priority on taking office. In doing so, he had to keep two audiences in mind — one suspicious of his policies toward Israel, the other seeking to understand how he can encourage democracy in some places and not in others.
And then there are his reelection prospects. His failures on the Middle East have largely pocked his foreign policy efforts — highlighted Tuesday when both leading GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Perry both forcefully criticized his handling of Israel — and for his diplomatic overture to Muslims abroad.
“We would not be here today at the very precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a speech here attended by Israeli and American Jewish leaders.
Administration officials sought to downplay Obama's Mideast problems, saying the president's goal was to secure peace -- a peace that could only be reach through negotiation and talks, not a U.N. resolution.
“The point that the president will make is, at the end of the day, peace is going to have to be made between the parties,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “There’s no shortcut.”
Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats are working to round up enough votes against the resolution to make a U.S. veto unnecessary.
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