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Obama at the UN: There's no shortcut to peace in Middle East

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 21 2011 10:58 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks during the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that there could be no shortcut to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as he sought to head off a looming diplomatic crisis for the Middle East and U.S. policy there.

"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now," the president told U.N. delegates. "Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them."

But in the speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Obama stopped short of directly calling on the Palestinians to drop their plan to seek statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials were working furiously behind the scenes to persuade the Palestinians. With the limits of U.S. influence on the moribund peace process never more clear, Obama had no new demands for the Israelis, either, beyond saying that both sides deserved their own state and security.

"Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted," Obama said.

"That is the path to a Palestinian state."

The push by the Palestinians threatens to isolate Israel even further, and divide the U.S. from allies in the Arab world who support the statehood resolution.

After the speech, which was friendly to Israel's position and did not criticize the Israelis, Obama went into a meeting with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. There he affirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security. Later in the day he was to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, still seeking to coax both parties back to direct peace talks.

At the same time, U.S. officials are conceding that they probably cannot prevent Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from moving forward with a request to the U.N. Security Council for full Palestinian membership. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any Palestinian statehood bid, arguing that only direct peace negotiations, not a U.N. vote, would allow the Palestinians to achieve the benefits of statehood.

It's a much different outcome than Obama hoped for a year ago, when he wanted to herald by now a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. U.S. persuasion and pressure failed to achieve that result and now peace again looks distant. Obama put the blame for that on Israel and the Palestinians.

"Despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences," Obama said.

Obama's remarks on Israel and the Palestinians came in a speech that also swept up the convulsions of what Obama called "a remarkable year." He talked about the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship in Libya, the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and the emergence of South Sudan as the world's newest nation.

"Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be," Obama said. "The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open. Dictators are on notice. Technology is putting power in the hands of the people."

The president talked of hope for the future, and a striving for freedom in "a time of transformation."

Yet the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians looked as intractable as ever.

Recognizing that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas seems intent to proceed, Obama was expected to privately ask him to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after Abbas delivers a formal letter of intent to the U.N. on Friday.

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