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Obama’s Palestinian Statehood Talks Get ‘Subdued’ Response at U.N.

September 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama sought today to head off the Palestinians’ bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations. He spoke to the U.N. General Assembly for the third time since taking office.

The president had made clear he would make Middle East peace the focus of today’s address. He set the stage by recounting what he called a remarkable year that saw the killing of Osama bin Laden, as well as Arab spring uprisings that have brought down decades-old regimes in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Something’s happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open.

The promise written down on paper, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” is closer at hand.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president then turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, acknowledging that, for many in the hall, it stands as a key test of those principles.

BARACK OBAMA: One year ago, I stood at this podium and I 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 a genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.

One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fueled by that failure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the U.N. Security Council for formal recognition as a state.

But President Obama insisted, that is the wrong path.

BARACK OBAMA: And I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.

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: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president didn’t mention the U.S. threat to veto Palestinian statehood in the Security Council, if it comes to that. Instead, he counseled a different role for the U.N. in the Middle East.

BARACK OBAMA: And we will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and each other’s fears. That is the project to which America is committed. There are no shortcuts. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, the president met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. In turn, the prime minister said the American pledge to block recognition of a Palestinian state was a — quote — “badge of honor.”

President Obama met with Palestinian Authority President Abbas this evening.

Ray Suarez is in New York to cover the U.N. meetings for us. I talked with him a short time ago.

Ray, start with the speech itself. You were in the room. What was the atmosphere? What was the reception?

RAY SUAREZ: When an American president speaks to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Jeff, every seat in the house is full. This morning was no exception.

But compared to speeches earlier in Barack Obama’s presidency, the reception for this one was fairly subdued, polite applause at the beginning and the end. The crowd knew that Barack Obama was going to try to do two very difficult things at once, both insist that the U.N. is highly effective and doing great things in the world, and that it wasn’t the place to work out the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: So a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on today. What are you hearing about alternatives or compromises? What’s going on?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just about an hour after Barack Obama got off the stage, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, gave his speech and said that there is a middle course between an almost-certain American veto for Palestinian statehood and doing nothing.

He wanted to give the Palestinians non-member status, which is one step up from the current observer status that they enjoy. He said, along with doing that, which only requires a simple vote in the General Assembly rather than a Security Council decision, you would set a one-year time limit for working out the final parameters of an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, but then there was a briefing, I gather, this afternoon, from Palestinian officials. So what was their reaction to things like that that are being floated, and are they listening to the pressure that’s being exerted?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it was a fairly high-ranking member of the Palestinian delegation, Dr. Nabil Shaath, who’s the deputy prime minister and minister of information. He said that he was willing to listen to the Sarkozy proposal, but that the Palestinians were going to exhaust their efforts to win full membership in the United Nations before they would turn to something short of full membership.

So they weren’t closing the door to the French president’s idea, but they said they wanted to approach the Security Council first and begin the process of becoming a full member of the U.N.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, speaking of the Security Council, I gather you have had a chance to talk to some members of the current council. What indications are you getting? What are they saying leading into this?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Security Council has 15 members, five permanent members, 10 rotating seats. No less than nine of the current members of the Security Council have already endorsed Palestinian statehood, already recognized a Palestinian state existing within the 1967 borders.

But whether those same countries would vote in the Security Council for a Palestinian proposal for full membership is an open question. We spoke to members of two delegations, Brazil and India, both countries that have endorsed Palestinian statehood. And they said they have to see the text of the proposal before they’re willing to make official their reaction to it.

They say they want a Palestinian state, they want to assure Israeli security with defensible borders, but they want to see the text first, and they aren’t willing to commit yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the president had a full day of talks, and it sounds like they’re continuing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the president had a series of bilateral meetings with the prime minister of Japan, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you mentioned in the report., and with two members of the permanent five members of the Security Council, David Cameron, the prime minister of the U.K., and French President Sarkozy.

And he will finish the day with Mahmoud Abbas himself. And, earlier, Nabil Shaath said: We will lay out our position to the president. We aren’t backing down. We aren’t changing the position that we came to New York with. And we want to make sure that President Obama fully understands where we stand. We know that he’s entering an election cycle, where he won’t be able to spend a lot of political capital or a lot of time and attention on us. So we, the Palestinians, are going to go to the world community to ask for their backing in a peace process, rather than wait for the Americans to come around after November of 2012.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray Suarez at the United Nations, thanks a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you, Jeff.