Obama Appeals To U.N. To Back Mideast Peace Efforts

One year ago, President Obama appeared before the United Nations General Assembly to usher in what he called a new era of American engagement. On Thursday, he was back in New York, asking world leaders for their help establishing a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly is an annual rite for American presidents. In his first such address one year ago, President Obama ushered in what he called a new era of American engagement. This morning, he was back in New York asking world leaders for their help establishing a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was in the hall at the U.N. and has our story.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama framed this morning's speech with an image of the city where this global meeting is taking place. He said outside the doors of this hall, the blocks and neighborhoods of New York tell the story of a difficult decade - the World Trade Center attacks nine years ago and the near collapse of Wall Street two years ago.

President BARACK OBAMA: These separate challenges have affected people around the globe.

SHAPIRO: He said those challenges make it more important than ever for countries to cooperate. And he briefly reviewed America's role in confronting some of those challenges over the last year. The president mentioned al-Qaida, Iraq and Afghanistan. He talked about an arms control treaty with Russia and the importance of keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

But he did not go into any great detail about those problems that have taken up so much of his foreign policy agenda in the last two years. The heart of his talk was about a problem that U.S. presidents have struggled with for decades.

Pres. OBAMA: Last year, I pledged my best efforts to support the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, as part of a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama acknowledged the pessimism and skepticism in the audience, but he said the alternative to peace is unacceptable. He called on Israelis to extend their freeze on building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That moratorium is set to expire this weekend. Mr. Obama said the world needs to rally behind Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and he obliquely criticized Arab countries that support Palestinians with words but not actions.

Pres. OBAMA: And those who speak on behalf of Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and in doing so, help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state.

SHAPIRO: He said those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down. Then he delivered only one of only two applause lines in the address in the 30 minute address.

Pres. OBAMA: When we come back here next year, we could have an agreement that would lead to a new member of the United Nations an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.

SHAPIRO: The other applause line came when the president urged U.N. members to defend the rights of women around the world. In that final section of his address, Mr. Obama argued that countries will only develop if they embrace open society, democracy and human rights.

Pres. OBAMA: The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens. And the diversity in this room makes clear no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.

SHAPIRO: He appealed directly to countries that emerge from tyranny in the 20th century, such as India, South Africa and countries of the former Soviet Union.

Pres. OBAMA: Don't stand idly by, don't be silent when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Recall your own history because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.

SHAPIRO: And the president ended where he began - in the city of New York. He said this metropolis proves that people from every part of the world can live together in peace.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New York.

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