Obama, at UN, urges nations to support Middle East peace drive

In his second address as president to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, Obama urges supporters of Palestinians to back their pledges with deeds, and asks Arab states to normalize ties with Israel.

Jason DeCrow/AP
President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters on Sept. 23.

President Obama on Thursday implored the world not to sit on the sidelines of the relaunched Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but to actively support two parties that he said could, with courage, deliver an independent Palestine within a year.

In his second address as president to the annual September opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Obama in particular upbraided the world’s many declared friends of the Palestinian people, whom he said are not doing enough to support a successful outcome in the talks.

“Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds,” Obama said, calling on Arab states in particular to give robust support to the Palestinian leadership and to “seize this opportunity” by normalizing relations with Israel as promised in the Arab Peace Initiative.

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Obama’s reception by the 192-member UN was less enthusiastic than last year, when the world body openly demonstrated its relief at the departure of George W. Bush and its approval of the first American president of color. But with his novelty worn off, Obama was interrupted by applause only twice: when he declared an independent Palestine an achievement within reach, and when he called for a redoubled effort “to protect the rights of women around the world.”

Indeed Obama – who encountered stiff criticism in the first year of his administration for what was often perceived as halting support for human rights in countries ranging from Iran and Burma to China – dedicated the second half of his speech to what he said was the UN’s original duty of protecting and promoting the inalienable rights of every human being.

For the second day in a row, Obama told world leaders assembled at the UN that the United States would be a leader and a partner in the pursuit of global peace and security, but would no longer (and by implication could no longer) carry out these pursuits on its own. On Wednesday, Obama unveiled a new US global development policy that envisions the US as a partner to developing countries that are demonstrating an ability to realize their own citizens’ potential.

Obama’s tone may not have been well-received by everyone in the hall, but some specialists in US-UN relations consider it a “refreshing” sign of a more mature relationship.

“What we’re hearing from [Obama] at the UN reflects a new style of post-hegemonic leadership,” says Michael Doyle, a professor of US foreign and security policy at Columbia University in New York. “It says the US cannot carry all the burden of nurturing world order, and emphasizes the responsibility of other countries to take on their fair share.”

Obama’s is “the right tone” for an era of emerging new powers and a large crop of stable young democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, says Mr. Doyle, who is also a former UN official. “It calls on them to not only continue to strengthen at home the human rights and democracy that have allowed them to prosper,” he adds, but to "accept an appropriate level of responsibility in promoting those rights elsewhere.”

Obama’s public entreaty to Arab countries to get behind the Middle East peace process is another reflection of this new leadership style, Doyle says. “In the past the Palestinian issue has been used by many countries in the region especially more as a baseball bat to beat Israel with than as an attempt to realize the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he says. “Obama is calling for all these people to play a more responsible role.”

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