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Obama challenges the world: Times for peace in Middle East

UNITED NATIONS — Grasping for peace, President Barack Obama on Thursday challenged a pessimistic world to overcome decades of shattered promises and help Israelis and Palestinians close a historic deal within a year. "This time will be different," he declared, offering a now-or-never choice between Mideast stability and perpetual bloodshed.

To a hushed audience of global leaders, Obama made Mideast peace the dominant theme of his yearly address to the U.N. General Assembly, a sign of the fragile state of the latest talks and the importance he attaches to their success.

"If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state," Obama said. "Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors. … More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences instead of our common humanity."

Twenty months in office, Obama no longer made a point of breaking away from George W. Bush and embracing the multilateral approach of the United Nations, as he did in his first address last year before this world gathering. The record of the White House is now his to defend. He did so repeatedly, particularly U.S. efforts to avoid a global economic catastrophe.

Obama is serving as an invested broker in Mideast peace. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are working toward an ambitious deal that would settle decades of issues within a year. The goals include the creation of an independent Palestinian state and security for Israel.

But direct talks between the leaders, which just resumed three weeks ago in Washington, have stalled over the impending end of an Israeli freeze on West Bank settlement construction.

Obama challenged Israel to relent, calling for the moratorium to be extended, knowing that would help keep Abbas at the table. "Talks should press on until completed," Obama said as his administration worked to hold them together.

Separately, senior Palestinian officials said Thursday that their side would consider an expected U.S.-brokered compromise on Israeli settlement-building.

On a broader level, Obama summoned the world to show leadership, and he showed as much impatience over the familiar Mideast grievances and the latest obstacles as do skeptics of the process. He implored everyone to stop wasting time and drew a rare round of applause by saying there could be an agreement to secure a Palestinian state by next September's U.N. gathering.

"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," Obama said.

Netanyahu did not attend, and Israel's seat in the grand U.N. hall sat empty because it was a Jewish holiday. Abbas was present, listening to the president through a interpreter's earphone. Obama did not mention the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

Other points in the Obama speech

U.S. wars: Obama made spare mention of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He reminded the world that he was winding down the divisive conflict in Iraq and accelerating the fight against extremists in Afghanistan. Yet there was not a major emphasis on terrorism or religious tolerance.

Iran: On the pressing security threat of Iran, Obama again extended a diplomatic hand. But he insisted the government there must prove to the world that its nuclear pursuits are for peaceful energy, not weaponry, or it will face further consequences. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed an afternoon session of the assembly. At one point he said that some in the world have speculated that Americans were actually behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks and that they were staged in an attempt to assure Israel's survival. Those comments prompted at least 33 delegations to walk out, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, all 27 members of the European Union and the union's representative.

China: The speech came amid a wider burst of presidential diplomacy in New York. Obama met at length with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao over U.S. contentions that China's currency is undervalued, but he emerged with little evident progress.

Obama challenges the world: Times for peace in Middle East 09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:07pm]
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