UNITED NATIONS // Barack Obama, the US president, warned yesterday there is no "short cut" to Israeli-Palestinian peace as he sought to head off an international crisis over a Palestinian bid for UN membership.
Mr Obama made the Middle East conflict the centrepoint of his speech to the annual UN summit before launching into crucial meetings with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States has threatened to veto any Palestinian application to the UN Security Council seeking backing for state membership, 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," Mr 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."
Mr 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 Mr 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," Mr Obama said. But he added Israel must also have cast-iron security guarantees.
"Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbours that have waged repeated wars against it."
With Palestinians frustrated by the deadlock in talks, Mr Abbas has said he will make an application to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday after his UN speech.
Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians rallied yesterday in towns across the West Bank to show support for their president's bid. The gatherings were carefully orchestrated, with civil servants and schoolchildren given time off to participate.
Some said they were dismayed by the US pledge to block the Palestinians, if necessary by a veto in the UN Security Council. In Ramallah, the crowd cheered when a masked youth on a stage burned a US flag before being led away by Palestinian security forces.
Mr Obama met Mr Netanyahu after his speech. The Israeli leader said Mr Obama's opposition to Palestinian UN membership was a "badge of honour."
The US president was to hold talks with Mr Abbas later yesterday, amid frantic efforts by many world leaders to head off a US veto that some fear could spark a new Middle East crisis.
France's President Nicolas 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?"
Mr Sarkozy proposed giving the Palestinians an observer state status at the UN as an intermediate step toward full membership.
The Palestinians have said that if the United States vetoes full membership, it will go to the UN General Assembly to seek an elevated observer status, similar to the one given to the Vatican.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in his annual address to presidents, prime ministers and monarchs from the 193 UN member states, said the Palestinians deserve a state, Israel needs security and the stalemate over reviving negotiations must be broken. He pledged the UN's "unrelenting efforts to help achieve that peace through a negotiated settlement."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a timetable for Israeli-Palestinian peace, with talks to resume in a month and a final deal to be reached in one year - part of a stepped up effort to push Palestinian leaders to abandon an application for full UN membership
* Agence France-Presse with additional reports from Associated Press