Nobel peace laureate urges Mideast focus for Obama

OSLO Wed Dec 10, 2008 1:37pm EST

1 of 7. Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari watches a torchlight procession from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo December 10, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Cornelius Poppe/Scanpix Norway

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OSLO (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday to delve into solving the Middle East conflict in his first year in office, calling it a knot that could be untied.

The former Finnish president and veteran diplomat received the 2008 peace prize, announced in October, for decades of peace-brokering around the globe.

"Peace is a question of will," Ahtisaari said upon receiving the prize at Oslo's city hall. "All conflicts can be settled, and there are no excuses for allowing them to become eternal."

"I hope that the new President of the United States, who will be sworn in next month, will give high priority to the Middle East conflict during his first year in office," he said.

Ahtisaari said that Washington's partners in the Quartet -- the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- must also be seriously committed "so that a solution can be found to the crises stretching from Israel and Palestine to Iraq and Iran."

"If we want to achieve lasting results, we must look at the whole region," said Ahtisaari, age 71, who won the peace prize for more than three decades of peace mediating in hotspots from Namibia to the Balkans and Indonesia.

"The tensions and wars in the region have been going on for so long that many have come to believe that the Middle East knot can never be untied," he said. "I do not share this belief."

"All crises, including the one in the Middle East, can be resolved," he said in a speech after receiving a Nobel diploma and medal to applause from about 1,000 guests at a ceremony attended by Norway's King Harald and Queen Sonja.

Asked in a live CNN interview if it was time for him to get involved in Middle East peacemaking, Ahtisaari said that the world already has a mediator in the Quartet's envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who should be supported.

Warning against "too many cooks" in the kitchen, he added, "We have an excellent cook who needs the necessary ingredients to prepare a meal that everyone can eat."

CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

The peace prize, which many consider the world's highest accolade, comes with 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.23 million). Ahtisaari has declined to reveal how he will use the money.

Ahtisaari said that the credibility of the international community was at stake, so it could no longer pretend to do something about conflict in the Middle East.

"We must also get results," he said.

The Nobel Peace Prize was shared in 1994 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the 1993 Oslo peace accords that later collapsed in renewed violence.

A senior Norwegian Nobel official, Geir Lundestad, told Reuters in a 2006 interview that anyone who solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was sure to win the peace prize.

Ahtisaari, the first Finnish peace laureate, urged states to honor their commitments to eradicating poverty under U.N. goals and added: "The fight against poverty is also the most effective measure of countering terrorism in the long term."

He said mediators do not choose the conflicts they get involved in but the parties to conflicts choose the mediator.

"The mediator's role combines those of a ship's pilot, consulting medical doctor, midwife and teacher," he said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth and Louise Ireland)

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