Palestinians rebuff Obama, edge closer to statehood bid

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2011 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leaders on Thursday rebuffed the latest U.S. attempt to dissuade them from seeking U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, all but guaranteeing a veto by the Obama administration that would please domestic supporters of Israel but further inflame anti-U.S. anger across the changing Middle East.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki left the door ajar to "any credible offer" that could avert a showdown at next week's U.N. General Assembly opening session. But, he told reporters, the United States hadn't presented a plan that would allow the Palestinians "to climb down from the tree."

Barring such a plan, he said, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would formally submit the Palestinian Authority's application for full U.N. membership at 12:30 p.m. next Friday.

President Barack Obama, facing an uphill battle for re-election next year and fierce bipartisan opposition to the Palestinian bid in Congress, sent two senior aides on a second long-shot mission in 10 days to persuade the Palestinians not to seek U.N. recognition by reviving direct peace talks with Israel. Even though the Palestinians almost certainly have the nine requisite votes for a U.N. resolution, the administration has warned repeatedly that it would use the veto the U.S. wields as a permanent Security Council member, arguing that the resolution would jeopardize the chances of restarting the talks that have been stalled for nearly a year.

Maliki, however, said Thursday that U.S. envoy David Hale and Dennis Ross, a senior Obama adviser, had "not presented anything new," and that the Palestinian leadership would seek non-voting observer status at the U.N., which would grant implicit recognition to a Palestinian state for the first time. It would be able to join certain international institutions, including the International Criminal Court, which some Israelis fear they would use to bring war crimes charges.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has denounced what he calls a unilateral move by the Palestinians to short-circuit the peace process, announced Thursday that he would lead Israel's opposition by addressing the General Assembly on the same day as Abbas.

"The General Assembly is not a place where Israel usually receives a fair hearing," Netanyahu told a press conference in Jerusalem. "But I still decided to tell the truth before anyone who would like to hear it. I have decided to convey the twin messages of direct negotiations for peace and the quest for peace."

U.S. and Israeli officials argue that a Palestinian state can only be established in a peace accord reached in direct negotiations with Israel.

"The Palestinians will not and cannot achieve statehood through a declaration at the United Nations," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "It is a distraction, and in fact, it's counterproductive. That remains our position."

Israel has threatened unspecified retaliation if the Palestinians proceed, which could include a withholding of tax revenues collected and an acceleration in settlement construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians and their supporters blame Netanyahu's conservative government for forcing them to seek U.N. recognition. They contend that they cannot resume direct talks while Israel refuses to halt Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they claim along with the Gaza Strip for their independent state.

"The United States and Israel want to see us go back to the negotiating table, where they are comfortable for us to sit in a low chair, speak quietly and continue wasting time while Israel builds settlements," said a Palestinian official who was involved in the peace talks but was not authorized to speak to reporters.

"We are actually trying to rescue the chances for peace by taking a different approach," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawy, asserting that the U.N. bid could breathe new life into the peace process by signaling that it is "no longer business as usual."

A U.S. veto in the Security Council would assuage Israel's supporters among American Jewish and conservative voters, some of whom accuse Obama of being too soft on the Palestinians. Some staunch Israel allies in the House of Representatives are pushing legislation that would cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinians — some $390 million next year — and any country that supported U.N. statehood recognition.

Republicans suggest they have an opening to poach Jewish voters from Obama, who they say is viewed warily by some Jewish voters for taking a tough early stance against Israel's building of settlements in the West Bank.

Democrats lost former Rep. Anthony Weiner's New York congressional seat this week in a rout that critics say showed Obama's support among Jewish voters is wavering. The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group founded by the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, has put up billboards across New York accusing Obama of being weak on Israel.

Carney said that Obama's "absolute commitment to Israel's security is demonstrated and unshakable," but he declined to say if Obama supported a cutoff of aid to the Palestinians.

A U.S. veto, however, risks triggering violent protests in a region that's being remade by the Arab Spring uprisings, which have upended longstanding U.S. relationships and, in Egypt and Tunisia, ousted dictators who for decades forcibly suppressed anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments and Islamic militant movements.

In Cairo, seething anti-Israeli sentiment flared into an assault on the Israeli Embassy last week that forced the Israeli ambassador to flee the country. Some experts are concerned that Egypt, which has fought three wars with Israel, could walk away from the 1979 peace accord that established formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and made it one of the United States' closest Arab allies.

A U.S. veto also could embolden Iran's hard-line Islamic regime, worsen relations with Turkey — a key NATO power whose moderate Islamist government has led international condemnation of Israel — and alienate European allies who support the Palestinians.

"This would be a real setback to American diplomacy and calls into question whether the U.S. can do what it wants to do, which is to bring a peace to Israel and Palestine," said Philip Wilcox of the Middle East Institute, who formerly served as the top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem.

"A vast part of the world is increasingly hostile to the United States because of the image they see of the U.S. tilted almost entirely toward the Israeli side of the equation," he said.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and international Mideast envoy Tony Blair have also been holding talks with the Palestinians to resolve the growing crisis.

The key sticking point remains Israel's contentious West Bank settlements. Netanyahu has expressed a willingness to slow down construction in the West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem. His largely right-wing coalition opposes any construction freeze.

The Obama administration continues to pursue a compromise that would placate Netanyahu's coalition while giving the Palestinians a graceful exit from their U.N. bid. That could include a temporary freeze on building in specified areas and an announcement of a resumption of direct talks.

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