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.
Mr. Obama also used his speech as a platform to make other criticisms. He rebuked Iran as a “government that refuses to recognize the rights of its own people” — even as the Iranian authorities were releasing two American hikers convicted on spying charges there, a sore point in the estranged U.S.-Iran relationship for the past two years. Mr. Obama also accused Syria’s government of torturing, detaining and murdering its citizens in that country’s uprising, and called for the Security Council to slap sanctions on that country.
Three times now under Mr. Obama’s tenure, the annual General Assembly meeting has served to put the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into stark relief.
In 2009, on Mr. Obama’s first visit here as president, he was forced to publicly abandon his call for a full freeze of settlements in the West Bank, after meeting immovable resistance from Israel. The pivot was widely viewed as major setback in the administration’s efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiating, as Palestinians have, since then, largely balked at sitting down with their Israeli counterparts to discuss a peace accord.
Then last year, Mr. Obama stood before the General Assembly and delivered an impassioned call for Palestinian statehood within the next year, to be recognized, he said, in the United Nations—the very same place where Mr. Obama is now, this year, trying to foil that same bid.
“We should reach for what’s best within ourselves,” Mr. Obama told the General Assembly last year. “If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lea to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
But that was last year. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama tried to acknowledge the shift head on: “One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine,” he said. “I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own.”
“But what I also said,” Mr. Obama added, “is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”