Text size

NEW YORK - U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking to build on his tripartite meeting in New York on Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told the United Nations General Assembly yesterday that nations aligned with either side should join the cause of advancing Middle East peace by speaking honestly to Israelis about Palestinians' legitimate claims and to Palestinians and Arab nations about Israel's right to exist.

Speaking to the 64th General Assembly, U.S. Obama yesterday urged the United Nations to "embrace a new era of engagement." Obama also reiterated the pledge of the United States to "seek a new era of engagement with the world."

Netanyahu called Obama's speech "very important" and noted the president had called attention to Israel's efforts to improve quality of life for the Palestinians.

Also in New York, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Haaretz: "Obama is always trying to maintain balance. For us the positive aspect is that he said Israel is a Jewish state. He also spoke very clearly about Iran, and we see his speech in a very positive light. The tripartite meeting had a very positive effect, because the main thing is we showed we do not intend to compromise on our positions and that we will need to conduct a dialogue without preconditions."

"The time has come to relaunch negotiations - without preconditions - that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem," Obama said.

Senior members of Netanyahu's entourage said that five weeks was a realistic time frame for the beginning of negotiations, adding that no concrete subjects in a future agreement were discussed at the meeting. The main goal of the meeting was to renew communication between the leaders and their teams, they said.

Lieberman, asked whether he thought Obama's patience with the parties was running out, answered: "The president of the United States has the hardest job in the world. One can empathize with his position. And he has problems that are far more serious than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Anyone who saw [Libyan leader Muammar] Gadhafi's appearance at the UN today knows that clear-thinking logic is not the strong suit of Middle Eastern leaders."

While at the United Nations, Lieberman is holding a series of meetings with his counterparts, mainly from Europe.

Agreement on Iran

Lieberman said the main thing he noticed in his meetings was "agreement on the Iranian threat. Everyone understands completely that Iran is the greatest threat. That is felt by the Europeans and the Arabs. Everyone is also saying something to be on the safe side about the settlements, but Iran is the big issue."

Obama reiterated the U.S. pledge "to continue to seek a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world," and told the General Assembly that "some progress" had been made at the three-way meeting the day before.

Obama's statement that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" met with enthusiastic cheers in the General Assembly chamber.

Obama also said the goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is "two states living side by side in peace and security - a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people."

Obama added: "I am not naive. I know this will be difficult. But all of us must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we only lend it lip service. To break the old patterns - to break the cycle of insecurity and despair - all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks over a constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security."

Obama called on the members of the General Assembly to remember that "the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It is paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the night. It is paid by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are God's children," the president said.

Obama's speech emphasized the difference between his administration's attitude toward the world body and that of this predecessor.

"I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. This has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for our collective inaction."

Obama said that we know "the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words... So for those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions that we have taken in just nine months."

As examples, Obama cited his prohibition, on his first day in office, of the use of torture by the United States, and the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "America will live its values, and we will lead by example," the president said.