UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that there could be no shortcut to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as he sought to head off a looming diplomatic crisis for the Middle East and U.S. policy there.
"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now," the president told United Nations delegates. "Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them."
But in the speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Obama stopped short of directly calling on the Palestinians to drop their plan to seek statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials were working furiously behind the scenes to persuade the Palestinians. With the limits of U.S. influence on the moribund peace process never more clear, Obama had no new demands for the Israelis, either, beyond saying that both sides deserved their own state and security.
"Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted," Obama said.
"That is the path to a Palestinian state."
The push by the Palestinians threatens to isolate Israel even further, and divide the U.S. from allies in the Arab world who support the statehood resolution. Obama was to follow up his speech with separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as he seeks to coax both parties back to direct peace talks.
At the same time, U.S. officials are conceding that they probably cannot prevent Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from moving forward with a request to the U.N. Security Council for full Palestinian membership. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any Palestinian statehood bid, arguing that only direct peace negotiations, not a U.N. vote, would allow the Palestinians to achieve the benefits of statehood.
It's a much different outcome than Obama hoped for a year ago, when he wanted to herald by now a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. U.S. persuasion and pressure failed to achieve that result and now peace again looks distant. Obama put the blame for that on Israel and the Palestinians.
"Despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences," Obama said.
Obama's remarks on Israel and the Palestinians came in a speech that also swept up the convulsions of what Obama called "a remarkable year." He talked about the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship in Libya, the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and the emergence of South Sudan as the world's newest nation.
"Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be," Obama said. "The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open. Technology is putting power in the hands of the people."
Obama also spoke of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited and is winding down. "We are poised to end these wars from a position of strength," he said.
The president spoke of hope for the world, and a striving for freedom in "a time of transformation."
Yet the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians looks as intractable as ever.
Recognizing that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas seems intent to proceed, Obama is expected to privately ask him to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after Abbas delivers a formal letter of intent to the U.N. on Friday.
A new approach being considered would see the "quartet" of Mideast peace mediators — the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia — issue a statement addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns and setting a timetable for a return to the long-stalled peace talks, officials close to the diplomatic talks said.
Israel would have to accept its pre-1967 borders with land exchanges as the basis for a two-state solution, and the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel's Jewish character if they were to reach a deal quickly, officials close to the talks said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy.
Obama was welcomed to the hall with polite applause from the delegations gathered for his address. There was little response from the audience throughout his speech, even on the hot-button issue of Middle East peace.
Facing a partisan struggle over deficits and jobs at home, Obama spoke to problems in the world economy, and made a brief plug for his new plans to create jobs, already running into Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.
"We must take urgent and coordinated action once more," he said. "In a global economy, nations will rise, or fall, together."
But Obama returned repeatedly to one theme: "Peace is hard," he said several times. "Peace is hard, but we know that it is possible."