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For Obama, U.N. vote may have silver lining

The administration has worked to head off a resolution on Palestinian statehood, but has failed. Casting a high-profile veto, however, could score much-needed points with Jewish voters at home.

September 17, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Paul Richter, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama will address the full United Nations Assembly on Wednesday.
President Obama will address the full United Nations Assembly on Wednesday. (Jacquelyn Martin, AP )

Reporting from Washington — With efforts stymied to head off a U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood, some Obama administration officials hope to make the most of a silver lining — the chance to emphasize the president's solidarity with Israel by casting a high-profile veto in the Security Council.

For months, U.S. and Israeli diplomats worked to forestall a plan by the Palestinians to present their resolution to the Security Council. Now, however, with Obama facing restiveness among some Jewish supporters, the prospect of a veto comes at a politically useful moment.

Democratic advisors are worried about Obama's relationship with Jewish voters in the wake of a Republican upset last week in a heavily Jewish congressional district in New York, where some voters said they were protesting the administration's record on Israel.

Suspicion of the president among pro-Israel voters has simmered since he went to Cairo two years ago and promised a new beginning in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. In urging Arabs and Israelis to the bargaining table, Obama has been critical of Israeli settlements and at times seemed at personal odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Israelis feel the president dislikes them," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "The Palestinians feel the president has gotten rolled by Prime Minister Netanyahu and has not been able to protect their interests."

Advisors to Obama acknowledge the president's frustration with the lack of progress toward Middle East peace, a cornerstone of his foreign policy just two years ago, and say he plans to articulate for world leaders this week his resolve to see the parties work out a two-state solution in direct negotiations with each other, not at the United Nations.

But whether the vote comes in days or weeks, the U.S. will make clear its intent to prevent the world body from recognizing a Palestinian state. Obama also plans a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu.

Neither side feels an urgency to reach a deal, said Alterman, "and under those circumstances you can have all the negotiations in the world but you can't get a peace deal."

That stalemate has put Obama in a difficult position. Arab partners in the region warn that a vote against statehood could inflame distrust of the U.S. But American envoys have thus far been unable to avert it.

As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees it, full membership is the legitimate right of his people. He promised in a televised address Friday to submit the statehood request to the Security Council after he finishes delivering his speech to the General Assembly at the end of this week.

Some Palestinian leaders, angered by what they see as the Obama administration's failure to deliver, hope to embarrass the United States at a time when it is desperately trying to reverse its shrinking support in the Muslim world.

In the wake of the New York congressional special election, Republicans spot an opening.

"To date, the Obama administration has failed to provide consistent, responsible support for Israel," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. In the future, he said, the U.S. must "show the Palestinian leadership and the rest of the world that we will continue to stand with our ally Israel."

During the weeklong session in New York, the U.N. General Assembly will also devote time to discussing the transition in Libya.

Obama will address a meeting of several world leaders to talk about the developments he hopes to see in Libya and to outline future U.S. support.

He'll also meet with the chairman of the Transitional National Council, which the U.S. recognizes as the legitimate government of Libya, and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — the first session between the two since Obama laid out his plans earlier this year for a U.S. transition out of Afghanistan.

In his address to the full assembly on Wednesday, Obama plans to offer an assessment of the state of American foreign policy, including the drawdown of military troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as leadership in the international effort to protect Libyan civilians from the forces of Moammar Kadafi.

The Palestinians say they plan to pursue statehood before the Security Council, but they also have the right to petition the full General Assembly to raise them to the status of an "observer." With that designation, the Palestinians would have greater latitude in institutions like the International Criminal Court, where they could conceivably pursue claims against Israel. Abbas has not foreclosed pursuing that option.

Even though either vote would probably be delayed for procedural reasons, the request makes the Arab-Israeli conflict — and Obama's policy in the region — a focal point of the week's events.

Obama administration officials believe they have a strong story to tell.

The U.S. has provided unprecedented assistance to Israeli defense, pushed for tough sanctions to thwart the Iranian nuclear program and stood up against attacks on the legitimacy of Israel at the U.N. and elsewhere, said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor.

Obama plans to make those points when he addresses the full assembly, said Rhodes, even though the U.S. commitment to Israel should already be evident.

"He'll be speaking broadly to the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel," Rhodes said. "But I think the range of steps that we've taken should be clear to many."

christi.parsons@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

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