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Obama calls U.S. commitment to Israel's security 'unshakable'

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama tries to discourage Palestinians from seeking statehood. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu praises his effort.

September 22, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • President Barack Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.," he said. "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."
President Barack Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly. "Peace… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from the United Nations — President Obama told world leaders Wednesday that the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel was "unshakable," winning rare praise from the Israeli prime minister and mending some frayed relations with a politically important domestic constituency.

Obama also could take solace from apparently being able to delay — although not deter — the Palestinian Authority from seeking an immediate vote this week on its effort to join the United Nations, a move the White House warns could spark further turmoil in the Middle East.

But, most of all, Obama's speech to the U.N. General Assembly signaled a lack of progress a year after he stood at the same lectern and asked the dignitaries to envision a 2011 peace agreement leading to a "sovereign state of Palestine."

That peace process collapsed. So Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will ask the U.N. Security Council to recognize a state of Palestine after he speaks Friday, instead of relying on negotiations.

Said Obama: "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

Obama pressed his case with Abbas in a brief meeting Wednesday night, but the two parted without a change of heart on either part.

U.S. officials believe that Abbas intends to move forward in filing his statehood request at the end of this week. But the officials also expressed confidence that the council would delay consideration of that request for an indefinite time — which the Palestinians appear to be taking in stride.

Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, told reporters at the U.N. that the Palestinians would give the Security Council "some time" to review its request.

Diplomats said the Palestinians were struggling to gather the nine votes required to win in the Security Council. The leaders of Nigeria appeared to shift against the Palestinians after meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Meanwhile, a senior Palestinian official said Abbas would not pursue a dual-track request, seeking the sort of "observer" status that the Vatican enjoys in the General Assembly while the full statehood request is pending before the Security Council.

"President Abbas doesn't want [people] to suspect we are not serious by pleading to two committees," Shaath said.

Obama has made clear that, if necessary, the U.S. would use its veto power on the Security Council. The president underscored that message in a speech more resolute in its declaration of U.S. loyalty to Israel than he has sounded here in the past.

Unlike his speech last year, Obama did not mention the growing Israeli settlements and his opposition to them, and he spoke of "our" friendship only with regard to Israel. He acknowledged the hopes of Palestinians but followed quickly with his support for Israel.

"It is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can deliver a Palestinian state," Obama said.

"But understand this as well: America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakable," he said. "Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day."

Obama then met privately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was criticized last spring for appearing to lecture the president after they met at the White House. On Wednesday, Obama listened as Netanyahu offered public praise for his policy on Israel.

"I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle," Netanyahu said, "this is a badge of honor."

Afterward, several American organizations that are pro-Israel issued statements lauding Obama, a notable development given the White House drive to ease concerns of Jewish voters in the run-up to the 2012 election.

Some statehood advocates contend that Abbas may be better off taking a cooperative approach with Obama, in light of recent harsh rhetoric from major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Obama's opposition to statehood, though, is deeply awkward for him in a year when he's trying to express solidarity with the popular movements of the so-called Arab Spring.

In the General Assembly, leaders applauded Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff when she welcomed the new nation of South Sudan to the assembly and said she wished she could do the same for a "free and sovereign Palestine."

By contrast, the reception for Obama's speech seemed restrained, with little applause.

Afterward, one liberal former Israeli peace negotiator complained that Obama had tilted too far toward Israel in his remarks.

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