Obama to Palestinians: Seek goals at negotiating table, not the UN

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 20, 2011 

UNITED NATIONS — With his administration and U.S. allies unable to dissuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from pursuing membership at the United Nations, President Barack Obama will make a case Wednesday for reviving the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Obama — whose White House late Tuesday announced a meeting with Abbas on Wednesday — is expected to include in his remarks to world leaders before the U.N. General Assembly a reiteration of U.S. policy: that for the decades-old conflict to be resolved, Palestinians and Israelis need to negotiate.

"Peace is going to have to be made between the parties," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday, offering a preview of Obama's remarks. "It's going to have to be the Israelis and the Palestinians sitting down, dealing with the very hard issues that have divided them. There's no shortcut to peace."

Speaking to the same gathering a year ago, Obama suggested it was possible that both sides could reach agreement. But peace talks stalled nearly a year ago, and the Palestinians say they have no choice but to pursue recognition at the U.N.

Israel is vehemently opposed to that, saying U.N. recognition will poison any peace talks. Obama is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after delivering his remarks, and the White House announced late Tuesday that the president will meet with Abbas at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

"We are focused on what can we do to solve the problem and that's to create a basis for negotiations going forward," Rhodes said.

Obama is scheduled to leave New York Wednesday night and return to domestic politics Thursday with a stop in Ohio to press for public support of his jobs bill.

His remarks come as a new poll shows more Americans favor, rather than oppose, the U.S. recognizing Palestine as an independent state, though nearly a third — 32 percent — have no opinion. The poll found 42 percent of those surveyed favor an independent Palestine, while 26 percent oppose.

But the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Washington Post found the public's sympathies in the dispute remain more with Israel than with the Palestinians: 40 percent say they sympathize more with Israel, while just 10 percent side with the Palestinians. A quarter expressed no opinion and 21 percent said they sympathized with neither side.

Abbas has said he'll present a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday — which Ban will pass to the Security Council — requesting full U.N. membership for an independent state of Palestine.

Obama has vowed to block the request using the veto that the United States wields as one of five permanent Security Council members.

The standoff between the two longstanding antagonists carries considerable political risk for Obama. By wielding the U.S. veto, he sides with Israel — and its politically potent supporters in the U.S. But the veto threatens to further erode U.S. standing with some of its allies in the Middle East, where popular uprisings — like the one in Libya — have in some cases resulted in anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments.

Obama dispatched envoys to the region in hopes of securing a solution that has proved elusive.

He spent nearly two hours Tuesday afternoon with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, a key U.S. ally that has had frayed diplomatic relations with Israel. Aides described the meeting as "very productive" and said Obama "underscored the importance of calming tensions in the region." He also shared with Erdogan the U.S. position that Palestinian action at the United Nations wouldn't lead to a Palestinian state.

Republicans sought to blame the administration for the Israeli-Palestinian showdown, with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry swooping into New York for a press conference, where the Texas governor said a White House "policy of appeasement" had encouraged the Palestinians to act.

Rhodes rejected that characterization, saying the administration has been steadfast in its support for Israel.

Obama's remarks won't be solely about the conflict, Rhodes said. He'll also talk about winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to contain al Qaida and the transformation of governments in countries such as Libya and South Sudan.

On the eve of his speech, Obama celebrated what the administration portrayed as one foreign policy success story in the making: the ousting of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But even as he said that Libyans had cast off "four decades of darkness," he noted that peril still exists and met privately with the chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. The meeting came as the council has failed to name a new cabinet, and Obama pressed for progress.

"We all know what is needed," Obama said. "A transition that is timely. New laws and a constitution that uphold the rule of law. Political parties and a strong civil society."

Abdul-Jalil, who spoke before Obama at a high-level meeting of countries welcoming the new Libyan government to the United Nations, pledged that the council would "work toward a spirit of forgiveness" toward suspected Gadhafi loyalists and pledged support for democracy and human rights.

"Libya reassures everyone that it will be a vibrant state that upholds peace and security in the region," he said.

Obama said the U.S. ambassador will return this week to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and he celebrated Libya as a success for the U.S. and the oft-maligned United Nations, saying the international community has not always made the right call, but "this time was different. This time, we found the courage and the collective will to act."

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