At U.N., Obama Says There Are No Shortcuts To Peace
The status of the Palestinian statehood bid is still unknown, but President Obama used his speech to the General Assembly today to explain why the United States would, if necessary, exercise its Security Council veto to block the measures:
UNITED NATIONS — President Obama declared his opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood through the Security Council on Wednesday, throwing the weight of the United States directly in the path of the Arab democracy movement even as he hailed what he called the democratic aspirations that have taken hold throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” Mr. Obama said, in an address before world leaders at the General Assembly. “If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Instead, Mr. Obama said, the international community should continue to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks on the four intractable “final status” issues that have vexed peace negotiations since 1979: the borders of a Palestinian state, security for Israel, the status of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital.
Less than an hour after Mr. Obama spoke, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stood at the same podium in a sharp repudiation, calling for a General Assembly resolution that would upgrade the Palestinians to “observer status,” as a bridge towards statehood. “Let us cease our endless debates on the parameters,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “Let us begin negotiations and adopt a precise timetable.”
For Mr. Obama, the challenge in crafting the much-anticipated General Assembly address on Wednesday was how to address the incongruities of the administration’s position: the president who committed himself to making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians a priority from Day One, who still has not been able to even get peace negotiations going after two and a half years; the president who opened the door to Palestinian state membership at the United Nations last year ending up threatening to veto that very membership; the president who was determined to get on the right side of Arab history ending up, in the views of many on the Arab street, on the wrong side of it on the Palestinian issue.
The Arab Spring quandary, in particular, has been enormously troublesome for Mr. Obama. White House officials say that he has long been keenly aware that he, like no other American president, stood as a potential beacon to the Arab street as the ultimate symbol of the hopes and rewards of democracy. But since he is the president of the United States, he has had to put American interests first.
So Mr. Obama’s entire 47-minute address appeared, at times, an effort to thread the needle meant to balance his efforts in support of democratic movements against his efforts to stand behind Israel, America’s foremost ally. From the moment he stepped behind the podium and began talking, everything he said seemed directed to one point. “Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: It is a great honor for me to be here today. I would like to talk to you about a subject that is at the heart of the United Nations—the pursuit of peace in an imperfect world.”
Mr. Obama called this year “a time of transformation.” This year alone, he said, “more individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and dignity.”
He hailed the democratic movements in the Ivory Coast, in Tunisia, in South Sudan. Of Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak fell after 30 years, Mr. Obama said, “we saw in those protesters the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw; from Selma to South Arica—and we knew that change had come to Egypt and to the Arab world.”
He hailed the Libyan toppling of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and threw his weight behind the protesters in Syria.
But, he said, Palestinians must make peace with Israel before gaining statehood themselves. Both Israelis and Palestinians, he said, have legitimate grievances that should be addressed. “The deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes,” Mr. Obama said. And he issued an oblique challenge to the United Nations itself as an institution which has long been accused of being anti-Israel.
“This body, founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide; dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every person, must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Mr. Obama said. “We will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. That is the project to which America is committed, and that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.”
Several times as Mr. Obama spoke, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, seated in the room, put his forehead in one hand. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose relationship with Mr. Obama has often been tense, expressed appreciation after the speech, calling it a “badge of honor” when both leaders met later in the day.
According to some reports this morning, the Palestinians are only two votes short of the majority that would require the United States to exercise its veto, and it’s fairly clear that the President would prefer not to have to do that. If that happens, then whatever good will the Untied States has left in the Middle East will likely be shot and the Islamists and Iranians will be handed a propaganda victory that they will no doubt exploit to distract the masses in their countries from the social problems that have led to nearly a year of protests and revolution. The reaction in the territories is likely to be negative as well, and that could lead another round of conflict with Israel that will set the peace process back even further. Thus, it appears that the current strategy in New York is to get the Palestinians to withdraw the request or accept something lesser, such as an enhanced Observer Status in the General Assembly.
At this point, though, one wonders if a delay or compromise will just make the situation worse. The U.S. has taken a public role in trying to block the Palestinian resolution and that became even more public with the President’s speech today. The fact that the U.S. position happens to be correct here is irrelevant, because its the propaganda that it will create in the Arab world that will be the cause of problems in the future. On the Palestinian side, Abbas has led his people down the primrose path with a statehood resolution that really isn’t going to create a state, and will do nothing to solve the massively complex border issues that need to be negotiated with Israel. If he returns home with something less, one wonders if that will cause him to lose credibility at the expense of those who prefer a more radical and violent approach. Whatever one thinks about the Israeli/Palestinian issue, this statehood resolution is a foolish and dangerous move.
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