Obama to United Nations: “Peace is hard”

Laura Rozen

President Barack Obama, departing from his past soaring rhetoric, delivered a sober speech to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday, declaring that "peace is hard." And while he recounted the tremendous changes the world has witnessed since the same gathering last year--most notably the tyrants toppled in the Arab uprisings and the birth of a new nation, South Sudan--Obama acknowledged disappointment that his administration's efforts to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement have not progressed, but insisted there were no short-cuts to achieving Palestinian statehood.

"It has been a remarkable year: The Gadhafi regime is over. Gbagbo, Ben Ali, and Mubarak are no longer in power," Obama said in a 36-minute speech, referring to the former leaders of Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Egypt. "Osama bin Laden is gone, and the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried with him. Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be."

"But let us remember: peace is hard," Obama continued. "Progress can be reversed. Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart. ... And we have more work to do."

Delving into the vexing issue of the stalled Israeli-Palestine peace process, Obama sought to explain American opposition to Palestinian plans to seek enhanced international recognition at the United Nations. He said there could be no short-cuts past the hard slog of negotiations. American and European diplomats have been working frantically behind the scenes this week to try to get agreement on a statement that would outline what the parameters for such long-sought negotiations would be.

"One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine," Obama said. "I believed then — and I believe now — that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences."

"I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress," Obama continued. "I assure you, so am I. But the question isn't the goal we seek — the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not attend Obama's speech but met with him afterwards, praised Obama's remarks.

"Standing your ground" to oppose the Palestinian UN statehood bid and defend Israel is a "badge of honor," Netanyahu said in a brief media appearance with Obama ahead of their meeting Wednesday.

European and Arab journalists and Palestinian officials, however, expressed disappointment, with some opining that Obama had curtailed his peace push in order to shore up pro-Israel support for his 2012 presidential election campaign.

"Obama to Palestinians: don't dream dreams. There's an election on," Guardian diplomatic editor Julian Borger posted with evident sarcasm on Twitter.

"Listening to Obama, you would think it was Palestinians who occupy Israel. That's exactly why we go to the UN," Palestinian advisor Dr. Hanan Ashrawi told Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

"I remember watching Obama's Cairo speech from [the Palestinian West Bank city of] Ramallah and people there had such high hopes," Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros posted to Twitter, referring to listening to Obama's June 2009 Cairo address to the Arab world. "Seems v[ery] naïve now."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held his head in his hands while listening to Obama's speech. The White House announced late Tuesday night that Obama would meet with Abbas Wednesday evening, a late addition to his schedule.