UNITED NATIONS — Exhorting world leaders to push past years of cynicism and pessimism, President Barack Obama challenged the countries of the United Nations on Thursday to unite around peace efforts that he said could achieve agreement within a year to create an independent Palestine and a secure Israel.
Obama, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, urged fellow world leaders to press forward with renewed determination in the quest for Mideast peace, an effort that he acknowledged has encountered "few peaks and many valleys."
Without an agreement, he said, "more blood will be shed" and "this Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity."
As Obama spoke, Israel's seat in the hall sat empty because it was a Jewish holiday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was present, listening to the president through a translator's earphone. Obama's call for a Palestinian state drew a burst of applause from throughout the hall.
Obama's one-year timeline is ambitious even if the Mideast peace process faced the best of circumstances, which it does not. He made no mention of the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.
The failure of past peace efforts has left both sides with rigid demands and public ambivalence about the value of a negotiated settlement.
Obama spoke with resolve of the need to address trouble spots around the world, but he tended first to the economic concerns that abound both at home and abroad.
"There is much to show for our efforts," he said, recalling the economic turmoil of years past. "We cannot — and will not — rest until these seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity for all Americans and for people around the globe."
On a pressing security issue, Obama defended his administration's approach to engaging Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program — an effort that has failed thus far. In July the administration imposed a new set of sanctions on Iran.
"The door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it," he said. "But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program."
Iran recently has indicated interest in restarting talks with the West, and on Wednesday the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany offered Iran another chance to enter negotiations.
Obama also spoke to the promotion of human rights, open government and democracy — familiar themes from a president who has pushed for international cooperation against repression and tyranny.
"Make no mistake: The ultimate success of democracy in the world won't come because the United States dictates it. It will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed," he said. "There is no soil where this cannot take root."
Obama drew applause in mentioning U.N. efforts to protect the rights of women, and he urged all nations to act against oppression.
"Do no stand idly by, don't be silent when dissidents everywhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten," he said.
The president devoted his greatest attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, underscoring the urgency of overcoming the hurdles that he has met less than a month after relaunching direct negotiations between the parties.
Abbas is threatening to walk out of the talks if Israel does not extend a slowdown on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that is set to expire next week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will not extend that partial freeze.
The looming expiration appears to have stalled the negotiations, which got under way in early September in Washington between Abbas and Netanyahu and then moved to a second round in Egypt and in Jerusalem last week. That second round ended inconclusively with little visible progress and without the expected announcement of a third session.