UNITED NATIONS — President Obama delivered his clearest statement of support and sympathy for Israel on Wednesday in a speech that rejected the Palestinians’ bid to have the United Nations recognize their statehood.
Obama’s address to a hushed U.N. General Assembly drew strong support from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the president’s opposition to the Palestinian diplomatic effort a “badge of honor.”
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Obama said that there was no short cut to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (Sept. 21)
At a time when he is facing fierce criticism from Republican presidential candidates over his past treatment of Israel, Obama evoked the horrors of the Holocaust to describe the Jewish state’s tenuous security position and made no mention of Israel’s construction of settlements on land the Palestinians envision as their future state.
In his remarks, Obama sought to celebrate the Arab Spring — the popular revolutions that have upended the political order of the Middle East — but his lack of support for the Palestinians’ U.N. bid may put him at odds with the region’s proponents of democracy. He has sometimes struggled to convince many Arab protesters that he supports their movements, in part because the United States has a long history of backing autocratic rulers in the region.
His remarks Wednesday also exposed differences with traditional European allies over the Israeli-Palestinian issue. French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-member observer status, a move that Obama has not endorsed and that the Israelis oppose. Sarkozy called for new negotiations to begin within a month and for the General Assembly to set a one-year deadline for the talks to yield an agreement.
“Sixty years without moving one inch forward — doesn’t it seem like time to do something new?” said Sarkozy, who devoted his entire address to the issue.
Obama’s speech marked a retreat from his early ambitions to help broker an enduring peace in the Middle East, as well as a step back from his call from the same podium a year ago for the creation of a Palestinian state by this session of the General Assembly. The 35-minute speech was not interrupted even once by applause from the gathered diplomats, a rarity for a president often celebrated abroad.
Obama did not specifically mention his threat to veto a Palestinian statehood application if it comes before the Security Council, a move he has argued would make the resumption of direct negotiations to resolve the conflict more unlikely. The U.S. Senate also increased pressure on the Palestinian Authority by threatening to cut off most aid if it proceeds with the statehood bid.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” Obama said. “Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security; on refugees and Jerusalem.”
Early in his presidency, Obama called Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank “illegitimate,” drawing criticism from Israel and its American supporters. Those sentiments were absent Wednesday, with 14 months to go before voters decide whether to give him a second term.