NEW YORK - U.S. President Barack Obama urged Israel yesterday to extend its construction freeze in the West Bank settlements and expressed hopes that there would be a new member of the United Nations next year - an independent state of Palestine.
Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly drew fire from right-wing Knesset members, who called it unacceptable intervention in a decision by the Israeli government.
"The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution," Obama told the General Assembly. "And we can come back here next year, as we have for the last 60 years, and make long speeches about it. We can read familiar lists of grievances. We can table the same resolutions. We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate. And we can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life. We can do that.
"Or, we can say that this time will be different - that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way. This time, we will think not of ourselves, but of the young girl in Gaza who wants to have no ceiling on her dreams, or the young boy in Sderot who wants to sleep without the nightmare of rocket fire."
Obama told the General Assembly: "Those of us who are friends of Israel must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine - one that allows the Palestinian people to live with dignity and opportunity. And those of us who are friends of the Palestinians must understand that the rights of the Palestinian people will be won only through peaceful means - including genuine reconciliation with a secure Israel."
Obama also touched on Iran, saying that the diplomatic door was open if the Islamic Republic chose to enter, but warned that Iran had to demonstrate to the world the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program.
Due to the Sukkot holiday, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and other senior Israeli officials were absent from the session hall.
Back in Israel, MKs Zeev Elkin (Likud ) and Aryeh Eldad (National Union ) said Obama's call was "unacceptable and an attempt to force a change in [an Israeli] decision. The Americans have to respect the democratic decision of the Israeli people who voted to strengthen settlements in Judea and Samaria and against concessions and withdrawals. The vast majority of MKs reject American pressure and support renewed construction throughout Judea and Samaria."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also addressed the General Assembly, said the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks to save the "Zionist regime." The delegations of the United States and several European countries left shortly after Ahmadinejad made these remarks.
Ahmadinejad also criticized Israel for "contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons" and for "imposing five wars" on neighboring countries.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him a "skilled killer" in an interview with CNN's Larry King. "Netanyahu should be put on trial for killing Palestinians - for putting Gaza under siege," Ahmadinejad said. "He should be put on trial for killing women and children."