Obama Presses For Mideast Peace In U.N. Address

President Obama speaks to the United Nations General Assembly

President Obama speaks to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday at U.N. headquarters in New York. Stan Honda/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/Getty Images

President Obama used his spotlight moment on the world stage Thursday to promote the latest effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, telling the U.N. General Assembly that an agreement is possible within a year to create an independent Palestinian state and a secure Israel.

Obama's speech to the General Assembly touched on themes ranging from the world financial crisis to nuclear disarmament and negotiations with Iran and North Korea. But nearly a third of address was devoted to the newly re-started peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Failure to reach a peace agreement means "more blood will be shed," Obama said, adding "this Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity."

'Now Is The Time'

He urged countries of the United Nations to support the peace efforts.

"Now is the time for the parties to help each other overcome this obstacle. Now is the time to build the trust — and provide the time — for substantial progress to be made. Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it doesn't slip away," Obama said.

He noted that it has taken a year of difficult shuttle diplomacy "with few peaks and many valleys" to get to the direct negotiations that began this month. Obama also acknowledged the widespread pessimism about reaching a successful conclusion.

"The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace," he said.

As if to underscore that pessimism, Israeli riot police clashed with Palestinian demonstrators Wednesday in Jerusalem after an Israeli security guard killed a Palestinian man. Responding to protesters, Israeli police charged the compound surrounding the al-Aqsa mosque on a hilltop that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Call For Israel To Extend Moratorium

The president's message on Middle East peace included a call for Israel to extend its moratorium on construction in settlements on the West Bank.

"We know there will be tests along the way, and that one is fast approaching," he said.  "We believe that the moratorium should be extended."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the moratorium will expire as scheduled on Sunday.  If it does, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of the talks.

Before the latest Jerusalem clashes broke out, both sides had hinted in recent days that they might ease their positions.

Obama specifically mentioned the Palestinian leader by name in his speech:  "Make no mistake: the courage of a man like President Abbas—who stands up for his people in front of the world—is far greater than those who fire rockets at innocent women and children."

Earlier this week, after arriving in New York, Abbas was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I cannot say I will leave the negotiations," but that it would be "very difficult" for him to stay if Netanyahu declares an end to the moratorium.

Members of the Israeli delegation didn't take their seats in the General Assembly hall during Obama's speech because Thursday is a Jewish holiday, Sukkot.

Obama warned that the latest peace efforts could end in failure, as others have done.

"We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate," he said.  "Or we can say that this time will be different, that this time we will not let terror or turbulence or posturing or petty politics stand in the way."

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