NEW YORK // Barack Obama, the United States President, challenged the doomsayers on his Middle East effort yesterday by exhorting world leaders to back talks that could yield a Palestinian state within one year. In his speech to a packed UN General Assembly yesterday, Mr Obama urged leaders to cast aside decades of division and mistrust, overcome their cynicism and support a peace bid.
Just three weeks after the resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the familiar rows over the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank threaten negotiations. Mr Obama said: "The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace. Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the process, with bitter words and with bombs.
"But consider the alternative. If an agreement is not reached ? the hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity." The reaction was positive but cautious. Ghassan Shaqaa, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said: "I think this is one of his most serious and courageous speeches.
"We hope his wishful thinking and good intentions will work toward creating a Palestinian state. But I believe we can urge for more than just good intentions and wishful thing. I think we need his - America's - will to put pressure on both sides." Mr Obama urged key regional players to draw upon the teachings common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism and reject the "forces of rejectionism and hate" that make peace so elusive.
"This time we should reach for what's best within ourselves," he said. "If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."
The speech came at a critical juncture in the latest round of talks between Palestinians and Israelis, which arose after months of diplomatic hard work from George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has threatened to walk out of talks if Israel does not extend a slowdown on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that is set to expire next week.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said he will not extend the partial freeze. That prospect appears to have stalled negotiations, which began this month in Washington between Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu before moving to Egypt and Jerusalem last week.
The latest round showed progress and lacked the expected announcement of a third session. US officials have tried to advance the agenda on the sidelines of the General Assembly, but have made little headway. Addressing the audience, albeit without Israeli diplomats, who were observing a religious holiday, Mr Obama described the freeze on settlement building as one of many "tests along the way" to peace. "Israel's settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks," he said. "Our position on this issue is well known. We believe that the moratorium should be extended. We also believe that talks should press on until completed. Now is the time for the parties to help each other overcome this obstacle."
When he took the podium during his first General Assembly as president last year, Mr Obama promised a "new era of engagement" and signalled an end to the unilateralist policies of his predecessor, George W Bush. Analysts credit the American leader with changing the political landscape. He has rallied tougher international pressure against Iran and North Korea, struck a nuclear treaty with Russia, pulled troops out of Iraq and poured them into Afghanistan for a final push. Despite convincing members of the UN Security Council to pass a fourth round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear enrichment activities, the Islamic republic has remained defiant in the face of international pressure.
"Now let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it," Mr Obama said. "But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear programme."
The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was due to speak hours after Mr Obama, but had already challenged US hegemony with a boastful interview claim that "the future belongs to Iran". When debating UN anti-poverty targets on Tuesday, the firebrand leader blamed capitalism for the suffering of millions and called for an overhaul of "undemocratic and unjust" key global organisations, which are dominated by the US and its allies. Some analysts point to Mr Ahmadinejad softening his rhetoric against the US in recent weeks, suggesting that sanctions against his country are hurting the economy enough to force a return to the negotiating table over a suspect nuclear weapons programme.
During his three-day stint in midtown Manhattan, the US president has unveiled an overhaul of American charity efforts, seeking to free aid-dependent nations of their addiction to development cash by encouraging "broad-based economic growth". Mr Obama is also due to take part in a United Nations meeting on Sudan this afternoon, with January's planned referendum on splitting up Africa's biggest country raising fears of a return to a bloody civil war, which ended in 2005. Preparations for the vote are behind schedule and some analysts predict that southern Sudan, which is predominantly animist and Christian, could unilaterally declare independence.
The mostly Muslim north is loath to lose the country's oil reserves in the south.
* With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor in Jerusalem