US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama address the United Nations General Assembly. © Mandel Ngan - AFP
US President Barack Obama
Tim Witcher, AFP
Last updated: February 6, 2012

Obama warns there is no 'short cut' to peace

US President Barack Obama warned Palestinians on Wednesday that there is no "short cut" to peace as France launched its own bid to avert a new Middle East crisis over a Palestinian bid for full UN membership.

While one top official said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was ready to give "some time" to the Security Council to consider statehood, the Palestinians did not pull back from their vow to submit an application Friday.

As tens of thousands of Palestinians staged rallies in the occupied territories and with the credibility of US policy on the line, Obama made the Middle East conflict the centerpoint of his annual UN speech before holding crucial meetings with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.

SCENE: Mass rallies in West Bank back Palestinian UN bid

The United States has threatened to veto any Palestinian application to the Security Council, insisting that only direct negotiations can produce a permanent deal.

"I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades," Obama told the UN General Assembly.

He did not mention the US veto threat but said: "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

Obama said the Israelis and Palestinians must sit down to "reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem."

For Obama, the confrontation is an embarrassment as 12 months ago he stood at the UN assembly and called for Palestinian membership of the United Nations within a year.

"I believed then -- and I believe now -- that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own," Obama said. But he added Israel must also have cast-iron security guarantees.

"Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it."

Obama met Netanyahu after his speech. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and Abbas were to hold talks with the US leader.

Many leaders fear a violent reaction to any US veto or rejection of Palestinian membership and UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged Netanyahu to act with "restraint" and "wisdom" over the Palestinian bid.

Sarkozy told the General Assembly it was unrealistic for the Palestinians to expect immediate full UN membership. But he added: "Who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?"

Sarkozy proposed giving the Palestinians an observer state status at the UN as an intermediate step toward full membership.

He also set out an EU-inspired timetable for new Israel-Palestinian talks which said negotiations should resume within a month and there should be a definitive accord within a year.

Sarkozy insisted that the usual US-led peace process should not bypass European and Arab countries.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Palestinians had reacted "positively" to the French proposals and Netanyahu had noted them. He said any Security Council vote on the Palestinians would take weeks, giving France time to press its proposals and develop a strategy.

US and European diplomats appeared to be working to buy time to find a formula that would allow greater international recognition of a Palestinian state while forcing the two sides back to negotiations, frozen for the past 12 months.

Abbas will give "some time to the Security Council to consider first our full membership request before heading to the General Assembly," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told reporters.

The Palestinians have said that if there is a US veto at the Security Council, it will go to the UN General Assembly to seek an elevated observer status, similar to the one given to the Vatican.

If the Palestinian resolution does not get at least nine votes on the 15-member council, the motion would fail and no veto would be necessary.

A General Assembly vote would only require a simple majority and no veto is possible. Israel fears that even a super-observer status would give the Palestinians the right to join the International Criminal Court and make complaints about Israel.

The French proposal urged the Palestinians not to start any ICC action while talks are going ahead.

Neither the United States nor the Palestinians were sure of the result of any Security Council vote.

"We don't know for sure what the vote count will be. But we know they're not going to get through," US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told American television.

Among Security Council members, Russia and China have said they will back the Palestinian bid. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff said her country also supports full Palestinian membership.

Colombia said it would abstain. The main European members, Britain, France and Germany, have said they will make an official decision when the details of the Palestinian resolution are known.

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