Obama fails to persuade Palestinians to abandon quest for U.N. membership

McClatchy Newspapers,September 21, 2011 

UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama failed Wednesday to talk Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas out of seeking full U.N. membership, setting the stage for a U.S. veto that could help shore up Obama's sagging domestic political standing but risk injecting the first serious anti-U.S. unrest into the turmoil wracking the Middle East.

Plunging into frenzied, high-level diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, Obama spent about an hour Wednesday evening closeted with Abbas in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in what U.S. officials said was an attempt to persuade Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel that broke down last year.

But Abbas left the session still determined to submit a request on Friday for a U.N. Security Council resolution granting full U.N. membership to an independent Palestinian state. Obama has repeatedly vowed to block the move using the veto the United States controls as one of five permanent council members.

Abbas "has been very clear about what his intent is, which is to go to the Security Council," Ben Rhodes, a White House National Security Council spokesman, told reporters after the Obama-Abbas meeting, which he called "very candid and direct."

Rhodes said that Obama told Abbas that the U.S "would have to oppose any action at the U.N. Security Council including, if necessary, vetoing."

Husam Zomlot, a member of Abbas' delegation, told McClatchy that the Palestinian request would go forward. "We expect a speedy process of our application," he said.

Under U.N. procedures, Abbas would present a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting recognition. Ban would pass the application to the council. Palestinian officials have said that Lebanon, the current council president, has agreed to sponsor a resolution. It is uncertain, however, when a vote would be held.

Speaking earlier to world leaders gathered for the opening of the 66th U.N. General Assembly, Obama sought to win support for his position, saying there could be no "shortcut" to peace and that an independent state of Palestine can only be established through a peace deal reached in direct negotiations.

"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.," Obama declared in a speech to a standing-room-only opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

"Ultimately it is the Israelis and Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem," said Obama, as a grim-faced Abbas looked on.

He didn't mention his pledge to use the U.S. veto, which the U.S. contends wouldn't change anything on the ground but would jeopardize chances of restarting the peace process.

Obama offered no new ideas aimed at persuading Abbas to drop his plan to request for a Security Council resolution.

A major theme of Obama's speech was the "transformation" of the Middle East set off by popular revolutions that ousted the dictators of Egypt and Tunisia, the Western-backed revolt that toppled Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and the nationwide uprising by millions that Syrian President Bashar Assad is struggling to crush by force.

"More nations have stepped forward to maintain international peace and security. And more individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and dignity," Obama declared.

His words, however, were certain to ring hollow among the Palestinians and their backers around the world. They see U.S. support for Israel — which Obama declared as "unshakeable" — as underpinning the refusal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to halt the construction of Jewish settlements on lands that the Palestinians claim for their future state.

By vetoing a resolution on Palestinian U.N. membership, Obama risks inflaming anti-American passions and possibly inciting violence in a region undergoing momentous changes triggered by the overthrow of U.S.-backed regimes that kept anti-American, anti-Israeli and Islamic extremist sentiments in check for decades.

While anti-American themes have been sounded by some protesters, there haven't been explicit anti-U.S. demonstrations since the Arab Spring revolts erupted in Tunisia.

A veto could help Obama politically at home, where he faces a tough re-election battle. Refusing to block the Palestinian bid could cost him support among Jewish American voters, especially in Florida, a key swing state. It also would provide Republicans with fresh ammunition with which to accuse him of being overly tough on Israel and soft on the Palestinians.

Apparently aware of Obama's low poll numbers as he revs up his re-election campaign, Netanyahu thanked the U.S. leader "for standing with Israel" when the pair spoke to reporters after they met following Obama's speech.

Netanyahu, who is to follow Abbas in addressing the General Assembly on Friday, called Obama's refusal to bend to intense international support for the Palestinian bid "a badge of honor." He also criticized the Palestinian "attempt to shortcut this process and not negotiate a peace," which he predicted "will not succeed."

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders were scheduled to meet separately Friday night with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

U.S. diplomats have been working feverishly for days with their European, Russian and U.N. counterparts to craft a compromise that would avoid a Security Council vote and avert a U.S. veto that could trigger new unrest in the Middle East.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy cited that prospect when he proposed that the Palestinians have their U.N. status upgraded from an "entity" to an "observer," and that peace talks restart in one month. The sides would have six months to reach agreements on borders and security arrangements, with a final deal creating an independent Palestine sealed within a year.

"Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state," he told the General Assembly. "But who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?"

Obama avoided any criticism of Israel in his speech, calling "America's commitment to Israel's security unshakeable."

"Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring," he said, "and so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day."

Obama sought to dissuade other nations from supporting the Palestinian request for full U.N. membership, saying, "The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace and security, with dignity and opportunity."

He implored world leaders to look to a resumption of negotiations as the only way to end the conflict.

"I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress," he said. "I assure you, so am I. But the question isn't the goal we seek — the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades."

He said that the U.S. remains committed to a proposal he made in May for a resumption of negotiations that would create an independent Palestinian state based on Israel's borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that saw Israel capture East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with territorial swaps.

(Clark reported from the U.N., Landay from Washington.)

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