Obama tells U.N: Palestinian statehood bid is no shortcut to peace in Middle East

President Barack Obama declared this week that there could be no shortcut to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as he sought to head off a United Nations showdown over Palestinian statehood.

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now,” Obama said in a Sept. 21 speech to the U.N. General Assembly. “Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side.

“Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them.”

Youths from Israeli settlements in the West Bank wave Israeli flags at the start of a Sept. 20 protest march against Palestinian statehood. photo/ap/ariel schalit

Obama forcefully defended his opposition to the Palestinians’ plan to seek statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council — an initiative that has become a thorny diplomatic problem for his administration. However, he did not directly call on the Palestinians to drop the bid, or offer a clear path forward in its place.

Still, his administration has said it will veto the Palestinians’ statehood bid if it comes to a vote in the Security Council. Should the Palestinians seek lesser non-member state status through the General Assembly, the U.S. likely will stand virtually alone, with Israel and a handful of other countries, in a vote that would be expected to pass.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was expected to formally request U.N. membership on Friday, Sept. 23, in a speech to the General Assembly; however, both the Security Council (voting on full Palestinian membership) and the General Assembly (voting on the declaration of an independent Palestinian state) will postpone any votes on the matter, for a few days or even weeks, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported this week.

With the limits of U.S. influence on the moribund peace process never more clear, Obama had no new demands for the Israelis, beyond repeating his position that both sides deserved their own state and security and should return to the negotiating table to achieve it.

Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats were working furiously to get Abbas to moderate his plans, but it was not clear they would be successful.

“Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted,” Obama said. “That is the path to a Palestinian state.”

After the speech, Obama went into a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There he affirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. Later Sept. 21, he was to meet with Abbas, where Obama was expected to privately ask him to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after Abbas delivers a formal letter of intent to the U.N. on Friday, Sept. 23 (Initially, the White House said that Obama was not scheduled to meet with Abbas.)

It’s a much different situation than Obama had hoped for a year ago, when he wanted to herald by now a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. U.S. persuasion and pressure failed to achieve that result and now peace again looks distant. Obama put the blame for that on Israel and the Palestinians.

“Despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences,” Obama said.

A new approach being considered this week would see the Quartet — the Mideast peace mediation team of the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia — issue a statement addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns and setting a timetable for a return to the long-stalled peace talks, officials close to the diplomatic talks said.

In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama speak in the Oval Office. photo/jta/ron kampeas

Israel would have to accept its pre-1967 borders with land exchanges as the basis for a two-state solution, and the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel’s Jewish character if they were to reach a deal quickly, officials close to the talks said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy.

In an appearance with Netanyahu before their private meeting, Obama reiterated his call for direct peace talks as the only solution. By Obama’s side, Netanyahu condemned the Palestinian move, calling it a “shortcut” that “will not succeed.”

Said Netanyahu: “I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state in the international community, but they’re not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return.”

Netanyahu also praised Obama’s stance on Israel, an endorsement that could help the U.S. president fend off criticism from Republicans.

“I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle — which is also I think the right position to achieve peace — I think this is a badge of honor. And I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor,” Netanyahu said.

The Israeli-Palestinian portion of Obama’s speech accounted for 635 words out of his total of 4,500, and there was little response from the audience throughout his speech.

Afterward, Jewish leaders and various pundits weighed in. The American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International all praised Obama’s speech.

“If the Palestinians are truly serious about a viable two-state deal, they should stop the counterproductive brinksmanship at the U.N. and return to the negotiating table now,” said David Harris, the AJC director.

Advocates of greater pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians said Obama’s speech reeked of electioneering at a time when the Obama campaign is trying to reach out to the Jewish community to staunch the loss of Jewish support.

“Obama to UN. Israelis and Jews suffer. Palestinians, not so much. Full court pander 2 lobby,” tweeted M.J. Rosenberg, a columnist with the liberal Media Matters website.

Others detected a note of despair from a president who has tried from his first day in office to restart talks.

“Regrettably, the president’s words offered very little in the way of hope to Israelis and Palestinians,” Americans for Peace Now said on its website. “The United States cannot maintain credibility as the standard-bearer of rights and freedoms while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is left to fester.”

In his own speech to the General Assembly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy backed a different solution: having the Palestinians seek a lesser form of recognition at the U.N., while joining new peace talks with Israel. That game plan would head off a Security Council vote and veto that he said would risk “engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East.”

The French president called for Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks in one month with no preconditions — requiring an enormous leap of faith from both sides — with six months to work out the issues of borders and security that have divided them for decades. He called for a peace accord within a year.

The proposal outlined by Sarkozy received a warmer welcome from the Palestinians than Obama’s comments, which elicited stern looks from the Palestinian delegation. Still, Palestinian senior aide Saeb Erekat said the pursuit of full U.N. membership would not be slowed: “We will not allow any political maneuvering on this issue,” he said

In the 15-member Security Council, approval of a resolution requires nine “yes” votes and no veto by a permanent member — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. If the resolution gets fewer than nine votes, it would be defeated without the U.S. having to use its veto.

While the Palestinians’ full membership bid would meet with a certain U.S. veto in the Security Council, assuming there were enough votes to have it approved, they still would have succeeded in bringing the issue back to the forefront of the world’s political discussions after years of failed negotiations, bickering and sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Ron Kampeas of JTA and additional Associated Press reporters contributed to this report.