2:06am

Sun September 18, 2011
U.S.

Palestinian Statehood Bid Pits Obama Against Allies

Originally published on Mon September 26, 2011 12:30 pm

President Obama flies to New York on Monday for an annual presidential tradition that this year could become a diplomatic disaster.

It's the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, when world leaders gather to address the world's problems. The Palestinians plan to ask the U.N. to recognize them as an independent state this week, which puts Obama on a collision course with some of America's closest allies.

Each time Obama has spoken at the U.N., the push for Mideast peace has been one of his key themes. Last year, he told the audience, "When we come back here next year we could have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

That's not exactly how it turned out, and today a peace agreement seems as far off as ever. Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis are nowhere on the horizon. The Palestinians want the U.N. to recognize them as an independent state anyway.

"We are going to the Security Council," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised in a televised speech Friday. "We need to have full membership at the U.N. We need a state, a seat at the United Nations and nothing more."

Even if the Palestinian move succeeds, it would lead to something far short of full statehood. And the Obama administration has promised to exercise the U.S. veto in the Security Council.

"Our fundamental baseline position is that those actions are not going to lead to a Palestinian state," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said at the White House on Friday. "The way to a Palestinian state is through negotiations between the parties. That's the only way you're going to be able to deal with issues of borders and security and the future of Jerusalem."

Many of America's closest allies support the Palestinians' bid, making this vote, and the promised veto, a messy diplomatic situation.

"It's now drama time," says David Makovsky, who directs the Project on the Mideast Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The brinksmanship of the Mideast is coming to the Northeast as they try to hammer out an alternative resolution that would avoid some of the maximalism and try to find a way to get out of this crisis."

Administration officials spent the last week in the region trying to head this off at the pass. So far it looks as though they failed.

Republicans, such as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, blame Obama. Bolton says the U.S. could have done far more to avert this crisis months ago.

"The impression that's left diplomatically by that kind of inaction is that the administration is really not that opposed to what the Palestinians are trying to do," Bolton says.

The White House says it has been clear and consistent about its opposition to the Palestinian move. But Bolton argues that the administration could have taken a page from his 1989 playbook, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization sought international recognition.

"We threatened to cut off funding to any U.N. organization that enhanced the status of the PLO. Worked like a charm," he says. "It stopped the PLO dead in its tracks. That was the end of the effort for 20 years, and if the administration were to do the same thing here I think it would have the same effect."

Some House Republicans are pushing a similar bill. When asked whether the White House would consider an approach that withholds funding for supporters of the Palestinians' push for U.N. recognition, Rhodes was noncommittal. "Until we know what the precise proposal is, we're not capable of speaking about potential consequences," he said.

Among conservatives, Obama has often been accused of being less pro-Israel than his predecessors. The White House pushes back against that characterization, but some Democrats fear that it is taking hold. Last week a Republican won a heavily Jewish, heavily Democratic House district in a special election in New York.

Former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida believes the accusation that Obama does not fully support Israel is false and malicious.

"This is the political season, and there are those in the political community that see an opportunity and seek to exploit it," says Wexler, who now directs the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace.

Wexler believes that heading into this U.N. meeting, the best thing the U.S. can do is help create a "day-after scenario" to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table once this storm subsides.

"It would be, in essence, making lemonade out of lemons no doubt, but I do foresee a possible scenario in which the American administration can assist the Palestinians and Israelis to mediate their positions and possibly move forward in a constructive fashion," he says.

Right now, however, the U.S. can be sure only of having the lemons.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

President Barack Obama flies to New York tomorrow for an annual presidential tradition. It's the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, when world leaders gather to address the world's problems. This year, the Palestinians will ask the United Nations to recognize them as an independent state.

The United States and Israel strongly oppose the bid. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report on the diplomatic quandary the Palestinian bid poses for the Obama administration.

ARI SHAPIRO: Each time President Obama has spoken at the United Nations, the push for Mideast peace has been one of his key themes. Last year he told the audience:

SHAPIRO: When we come back here next year we could have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations. An independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.

SHAPIRO: That's not exactly how it turned out. Today a peace agreement seems as far away as ever, and the Palestinians want the U.N. to recognize them as an independent state anyway. The Obama administration has promised to veto that move in the Security Council.

Ben Rhodes is deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

CORNISH: Our fundamental baseline position is that those actions are not going to lead to a Palestinian state, and that we are going to oppose efforts to deal with issues that should be negotiated between the parties at the U.N.

SHAPIRO: But many of America's closest allies support the Palestinians' bid. And that makes this vote, and the promised veto, a messy diplomatic situation.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: It's now drama time.

SHAPIRO: David Makovsky directs the Mideast Peace Project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

MAKOVSKY: The brinkmanship of the Mideast is coming to the northeast, as they try to hammer out an alternative resolution that would avoid some of the maximalism and try to find a way to get out of this crisis.

SHAPIRO: Administration officials spent the last week in the region trying to head this off at the pass. So far it looks like they failed. Republicans blame President Obama. John Bolton was President Bush's ambassador to the U.N. and he says the U.S. could have done far more to avert this crisis months ago.

CORNISH: The impression that's left diplomatically by that kind of inaction is that the administration is really not that opposed to what the Palestinians are trying to do.

SHAPIRO: The White House says it has been totally clear and consistent about its opposition. But Bolton says the administration could have taken a page from his 1989 playbook, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization sought international recognition.

BOLTON: We threatened to cut off funding to any U.N. organization that enhanced the status of the PLO. Worked like a charm. It stopped the PLO dead in its tracks. That was the end of the effort for 20 years. If the administration were to do the same thing here, I think it would have the same effect.

SHAPIRO: At the White House, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes was asked whether he would consider that approach.

RHODES: Until we know what the precise proposal is, we're not capable of speaking about potential consequences.

SHAPIRO: Among conservatives, President Obama has often been accused of being less pro-Israel than his predecessors. The White House pushes back against that, but some Democrats fear that the criticism is taking hold.

Last week a Republican won a heavily Jewish, heavily Democratic House district in a special election in New York. Democratic former congressman Robert Wexler believes the accusation that President Obama does not fully support Israel is false and malicious. He now directs the F. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace.

ROBERT WEXLER: This is the political season, and there are those in the political community that see an opportunity and seek to exploit it.

SHAPIRO: He says heading into this U.N. meeting, the best thing the U.S. can do is help create a day-after scenario, to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table once this storm subsides.

WEXLER: It would be in essence making, you know, lemonade out of lemons, no doubt, but I do foresee a possible scenario in which the American administration can assist the Palestinians and the Israelis, to mediate their positions and possibly move forward in a constructive fashion.

SHAPIRO: Right now, however, the U.S. can only be sure of having the lemons.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.