Palestinians vent anger at U.S. over statehood issue

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 22, 2011 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian protesters burned effigies of President Barack Obama and stomped on U.S. flags Thursday in one of the largest recent displays of anti-American sentiment here, sparked by the United States' pledge to veto any request for U.N. membership for a Palestinian state.

Gathered outside the residence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's expected to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday, the protesters denounced Obama, whom they accused of siding with Israel in the lengthy impasse over peace negotiations.

"Obama betrayed the Palestinian people. He sided with Israel against us, and showed what kind of leader he is and what America truly thinks of Palestine," said Mahmoud Abouta, 17, who carried a sign with Obama's name crossed out.

Abbas is expected to appeal for U.N. membership during his speech Friday and has said he'll submit a formal application to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that will propose a state that would comprise the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Ban then would pass that application to the Security Council for consideration. As one of five permanent members, the United States has the power to veto anything that comes before the Security Council.

Israel has opposed the bid, and the United States has echoed its position, calling the proposed application a unilateral step that hurts peace negotiations between the countries. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N,," Obama told the General Assembly on Wednesday, "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

But a U.S. veto of the Palestinians' application for U.N. membership is certain to stoke anti-American ferment to new heights here, and also is likely to affect the United States' diminishing status in the Middle East, where the Arab Spring toppled what had been a staunchly pro-American regime in Egypt.

"The U.S. has shown its true colors, as a puppet of Israel. If they use that veto, that is it. We will never forget," Abouta said, expressing a sentiment heard here frequently Thursday.

Palestinian anger at the United States has been growing steadily over the past few years as Palestinians increasingly blame the U.S. for the lack of fruitful peace negotiations.

Before traveling to the United Nations, Abbas said he was forced to seek statehood through the international body because "peace talks remain a dead end." He said there hadn't been serious negotiations for several years.

Obama tried to relaunch the talks last September, but the effort had barely begun before the two sides stopped meeting. Since then, Israeli and Palestinian officials have traded barbs over who's to blame for the failure.

Both sides agree that what to do about Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains the most intractable issue on the table. There are other issues, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees who are living in other countries and the allocation of water resources, but they're rarely mentioned because the talks "do not get past the settlement issue," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on land that Palestinians see as earmarked for their future state.

Support among Israelis for the settlers has grown steadily over the last decade, with the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen as being largely pro-settler.

Until the issue of the settlements is decided, Erekat said, the issues of borders and potential land swaps can't be resolved.

In previous governments, Israel has continued to expand settlements while conducting peace talks. But Palestinians have said they'll no longer agree to negotiations until the settlements are frozen. Israel calls this a "precondition" to peace, while Palestinians say they're upholding a position the Obama administration has encouraged.

"We were pushed to adopt this position by the current U.S. president, and now we are being pushed to abandon it by the same person," Palestinian spokesman Xavier Abu Eid said.

Israeli officials agree that the Obama administration encouraged the Palestinians to take a tough line on settlements, but they say the administration quickly abandoned that as "unproductive."

"At this point, it is obstinacy on the Palestinians' part," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. "We are encouraging them to sit, to talk with us about everything. And they are refusing because they have climbed up a tree without a ladder."

Israeli officials also blame the Obama administration for "raising expectations" among Palestinians and then failing to press them to alter their stance. Palestinians, meanwhile, have pointed out that Israel receives significant support for the settler movement from the U.S.

Groups such as American Friends of Israel are estimated to filter millions of dollars to the settlement movement, as do evangelical groups based in the United States that visit Jewish settlements.

"Why should the United States remain the main broker in the peace talks if they are so biased?" Abouta asked during the protest in Ramallah.

Blame for failing to reach a peace deal stretches back several decades and involves dozens of leaders, another demonstrator, local artist Mustafa Moydin, pointed out. He added, however, that the most recent wave of blame — and anger — was clearly directed at the United States.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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