Citing what he called a “remarkable year” for global freedom and human dignity, President Obama on Wednesday asked the United Nations General Assembly to consider the list of countries where citizens have thrown off the shackles of authoritarian rule since world leaders assembled in New York 12 month ago.
Reminding representatives of the UN’s 194 member countries of the change that has swept places from Tunisia and Egypt to Ivory Coast and South Sudan, Mr. Obama hailed the role the UN played in helping people realize their aspirations for freedom – particularly in Libya. “This is how the international community is supposed to work,” he added.
The tricky task for Obama on Wednesday was how to square his speech’s themes of freedom and the realization of human aspirations with the issue on the minds of everyone at the UN meetings this week: the Palestinians’ plan to seek UN recognition of an independent Palestine.
Obama acknowledged that a year ago, he stood on the same podium and announced that he looked forward to welcoming an independent Palestine as the UN’s newest member 12 months hence. “But what I also said,” he added, “is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.”
Insisting “there are no shortcuts” to peace and freedom, Obama said the conflict can be resolved only through direct negotiations.
He did not offer any new ideas either for dissuading the Palestinians from their statehood bid or for getting the parties back to the negotiating table.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy did. Speaking about an hour after Obama, the French leader used his entire brief speech from the same podium to lay out a plan for arriving at a “definitive agreement” in a year’s time.
Mr. Sarkozy called on the Palestinians to refrain from seeking any unilateral action through the UN Security Council – an action the United States has vowed to veto. Instead, he called for the General Assembly to grant the Palestinians “observer status” as a kind of antechamber to full recognition.
He also called for the international community to adopt an “ambitious” plan under which direct negotiations would resume within a month; issues of borders and security would be decided within six months; and a full resolution, with creation of a Palestinian state, would be arrived at within a year.
It is urgent to try something new, Sarkozy said, as he proclaimed the failure of the “method” used in past decades of peace efforts – which he hinted was dominated by “one power,” presumably the US. Any new peace effort would have to include the countries that share the region, he said.
He also called for negotiations to begin “without preconditions” – something that will be well received by Israelis who have resisted Palestinian demands, including a freeze on settlement activity, for returning to the negotiating table.
Obama was received warmly but with noticeably less enthusiasm than in his first two years delivering the American president’s annual speech to the opening session of the UN General Assembly.
The notable absence of spontaneous applause during the speech may have reflected a broad disappointment in US foreign policy under Obama. But some diplomats who were in the green assembly hall said reaction was dampened by the US stance on the Palestinian effort to win full UN membership.
In his speech, Obama acknowledged the frustration that he and many others feel at the “stalemate” in the Middle East peace process. He cited what he called the “new basis for negotiations” that he offered in May, saying that basis is clear to everyone: “Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security,” and “Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.”
Obama reaffirmed what he called America’s “unbreakable” bond with Israel shortly after his speech, when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu thanked Obama for “standing your ground” and taking “the right position to achieve peace” by ruling out any path to a Palestinian state other than direct negotiations.
In addition, the White House announced that the president is to sit down late Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – a meeting that administration officials had frostily suggested was not envisioned.
Obama also used his UN speech to remind the world of the “new direction” US foreign policy has taken since he took office. All US combat forces will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, he said, and the US is working with the international community to assist Afghanistan in assuming its own security needs by 2014.
But he also lauded the US role in ushering the UN’s newest member – South Sudan – into independence, and he hailed the international effort on behalf of Libya’s freedom-seeking people.
Both examples are likely to stick with UN members – and perhaps not in the way Obama intended – as they consider the Palestinian issue over the coming days and weeks.