The 65th UN General Assembly opened in New York on Thursday [AFP]

The US president has made an impassioned plea at the United Nations General Assembly for international support for the beleaguered Middle East peace process.

Soon after Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, opened the meeting on Thursday, Barack Obama called on heads of nations to make sure "this time is different" from previous failed efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president said it is time for key regional players to draw on traditions of tolerance common to Islam, Judaism and Christianity to forge peace.

"If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel," Obama said, drawing applause from the audience.

Obama pushed countries that have pledged support for the Palestinians to meet their obligations for both political and financial support.

"Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds," he said.

"Those who speak out for Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority with political and financial support." 

Settlement dispute

The US is brokering direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, aimed at creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

But Israel's refusal so far to extend a moratorium on settlements in the occupied West Bank has put the process at risk, with the Palestinians threatening to quit the negotiations if settlement construction resumes when the partial moratorium expires at the end of the month.

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Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said he will not extend the construction moratorium but could limit the scope of further building in some settlements.

Obama urged Israel to extend the moratorium.

"Our position on this issue is well known. We believe that the moratorium should be extended," he said.

Seats reserved for Israel at the gathering were empty during Obama's address.

"Politically and diplomatically this [Israeli absence] usually means something," Al Jazeera's Nour Odeh, reporting from the occupied West Bank, said. 

"It probably references Israel's unease with Obama's open remarks calling on it to extend the moratorium.

"Beyond that urgent call, there wasn't really anything new that Obama offered to either party beyond talking about peace and mutual recognition."

The Israeli mission at the UN told Al Jazeera that the delegation was absent due to a Jewish holiday.

Obama also said nations supporting a Palestinian state "must stop trying to tear Israel down" and that Arab nations must show Israel how much it has to gain from seeking peace.

"Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by describing and demonstrating the normalisation that it promises Israel," he said.

The US president also called on all nations with an interest in Middle East peace to get behind the effort and resist "rejectionists on both sides" who will seek to disrupt the process "with bitter words and with bombs".

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told the AFP news agency that he welcomed Obama's remarks, "especially his call for a halt of the settlement activities and for the creation of a Palestinian state".
  
"We also welcome the huge efforts exerted by President Obama and his administration to push forward the peace process," he said.

'Door open' for Iran

Obama also addressed the issue of Iran's nuclear programme, saying the US is open to diplomacy with Iran only if it proves that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

"The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and 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 programme."

However, Obama also noted that he made the same overture, in the same forum, a year ago, and tensions continue.

World leaders in the New York summit were expected to discuss a number of issues including the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, the recent tension between China and Japan, and the war in Afghanistan.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies