Saying that there is “no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades” between Israelis and Palestinians, President Obama said today he would oppose a Palestinian bid for statehood. His speech this afternoon to the United Nations General Assembly was distinctly in contrast to last year’s when he called for an “independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel” that would be recognized by the UN, and to a May speech in which Obama called on Israelis and Palestinians to seek a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Obama acknowledged this change of focus, saying:
One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believed then – and I believe now – that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences.
Seeking to strike a careful balance, Obama called on the international community to support a resumption of negotiations about the four “intractable ‘final status’ issues” that have troubled peace negotiations since 1979: what the borders of a Palestinian state would be; issues of security for Israel; what will be the status of Palestinian refugees who have left or have been forced to leave their homes in Israel; and what will be the fate of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides for their capital.
Palestinians have said that it is precisely due to the lack of progress made in years of peace talks that has led them to seek recognition from the UN. Support for a Palestinian state is indeed high in the General Assembly. After Obama spoke, French President Nicholas Sarkozy called for a resolution to upgrade the Palestinians to “observer status” as a step towards statehood; he also requested a one-year timetable for Israeli-Palestinian peace, with talks to resume in a month, an agreement about borders and territory to occur in six months and, in a year, a final deal to be made. Sarkozy also called for broader participation from Arab nations who had not been part of the process and warned the US that a veto of the Palestinian bid “risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East.”
Obama is to meet with both Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, after the speech. The US president is expected to ask Abbas to give up his bid for formal UN recognition after he offers a formal letter of intent on Friday.
Palestinians have argued that full statehood, while largely symbolic, would enhance their status in peace talks. In Ramallah and Nablus in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians marched and schools and some businesses were closed in support of the call for statehood. Palestinians interviewed by Al Jazeera expressed surprise that Obama would actively seek to convince other countries not to support their bid for statehood:
Talking to Al Jazeera’s Gregg Carlstrom, senior Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti, also expressed his surprise over the US opposition.
“I think it is very strange that Obama will veto a bid for Palestinian statehood, when a year ago at the UN General Assembly he supported the idea,” he said.
“Palestinian statehood will create a new political situation where Israeli will be occupying another country.”
Should the Palestinian bid fail, Abbas can still ask the General Assembly for “enhanced observed status” such as the Vatican has and which cannot be vetoed.
While Obama’s statements on the Israeli/Palestinian issue were the most closely watched part of his speech, he also called for Security Council sanctions on Syria, which are said to be unlikely to happen; for a “peaceful transition of power from President Saleh” in Yemen; and for further reform in Bahrain, while noting that the US is its “close friend.” US military efforts in Iraq and the planned “transition” in Afghanistan received only brief mentions and China and India none at all. The US’s commitments to HIV/AIDS, climate change, the global financial crisis and famine in the Horn of Africa were all affirmed but “no new initiatives were announced.”
The speech, says Foreign Policy, was ”tailored toward avoiding controversy during an election season” and, indeed the “best demonstration possible for why the Palestinians decided to go to the U.N. in the first place.”
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Photo taken September 17, 2011, by PSP Photos