At U.N., Obama’s rejection of Palestinian bid offers strongest embrace of Israel

September 21, 2011

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.”

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.

“What he’s said comes out of his background; what he’s actually done has come out of the political realities of this country,” said Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian American scholar who holds the Edward Said chair in Arab studies at Columbia University. Khalidi and Obama were acquaintances when the two taught at the University of Chicago.

When Obama spoke to the General Assembly a year ago, he had just weeks earlier inaugurated a new round of direct negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who met with Obama late Wednesday.

That new round soon collapsed, after Netanyahu declined to renew a politically difficult moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. The two sides have not negotiated since, and Abbas, frustrated by the lack of movement, decided to seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state this month.

“I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state through the international community, but they’re not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return,” Netanyahu said.

Despite Obama’s argument, Palestinian officials said Wednesday that Abbas will submit the Palestinian membership application to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon later this week, probably on Friday.

Nabil Shaath, a former Palestinian foreign minister and senior member of the delegation, said it is unclear when the Security Council might vote on the application. He said the Palestinians do not expect a decision before Abbas leaves New York.

“We are not doing it to spite the United States; we are not doing this to confront the United States,” he said.

But Shaath said he was disappointed that Obama, in his speech, emphasized Israeli suffering and lack of security while failing to criticize Israel for building settlements in the occupied territories, widely considered illegal under international law.

Obama’s remarks are likely to undermine his outreach to the Islamic world, a priority of his foreign policy.

Asked recently how the initiative was progressing, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said there remains a “continued challenge around public opinion in the Arab world.”

“I think the principal challenge has been the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Rhodes said, adding that it is “not surprising given how important that issue is to people.”

Obama spoke forcefully, as he did a year ago, on the importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, and he used the popular unrest in Syria to urge the United Nations to do more to promote them.

He called on the Security Council to follow the U.S. example and impose sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Obama has said must step down.

“Something is happening in our world,” Obama said. “The way things have been is not the way they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open.”

But to some, Obama’s speech, by celebrating the Arab Spring and opposing the Palestinian statehood bid, highlighted the inconsistency of his policy in the region.

“There is virtually no thread of reason running between the way he related to the rest of the world and its developments, particularly in the Middle East, and the positions he espoused on Israel-Palestine — a conflict apparently occurring on another planet,” said Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. “Palestinian freedoms, rights and self-determination are somehow supposed to be attained without the recourse to leverage, international law or meaningful international support, considered to be necessary and legitimate virtually everywhere else.”

In Washington, the Senate Appropriations Committee threatened to cut off American economic aid and potentially close the Palestinians’ office in the United States.

“We want to let them know, you do that at your own detriment,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of the Palestinian statehood effort.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations has already passed a bill that would end U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority if it pursues U.N. recognition, strengthening the likelihood of a cutoff.

The United States is the second-biggest donor to the Palestinians after the European Union, and the loss of the funding could severely affect the Palestinian government. The congressional bills would leave in place the $100 million annual U.S. contribution to train Palestinian security forces.

Staff writers Colum Lynch and Joby Warrick in New York and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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