Obama Trying to Head Off Diplomatic Embarrassment at U.N.

September 21, 2011 - 5:40 AM
Making a final push to stop Palestinian statehood bid
Obama

President Barack Obama speaks at a DNC fundraiser at Gotham Hall in New York, Tuesday, Sept., 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

NEW YORK (AP) — Scrambling to head off a diplomatic clash, President Barack Obama will publicly push for the Palestinians to drop a statehood bid when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.

Obama will follow up his speech with separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as he seeks to coax both parties back to direct peace talks.

At the same time, U.S. officials are conceding that they probably cannot prevent Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from moving forward with a request to the U.N. Security Council for full Palestinian membership.

Recognizing that Abbas seems intent to proceed, Obama is expected to privately ask the Palestinian leader to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after Abbas delivers a formal letter of intent to the U.N. on Friday.

"The president will say, frankly, the same thing in private that he'll say in public, which is that we do not believe that this is the best course of action for achieving Palestinian aspirations," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

Obama will also meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Obama administration has pledged to veto any Palestinian statehood bid, arguing that only direct peace negotiations, not a U.N. vote, would allow the Palestinians to achieve the benefits of statehood.

With peace talks stalled, the U.S. and international partners have been negotiating intensely this week over the steps it would take to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.

The new approach being considered would see the "quartet" of Mideast peace mediators — the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia — issue a statement addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns and setting a timetable for a return to the long-stalled peace talks, officials close to the diplomatic talks said.

Israel would have to accept its pre-1967 borders with land exchanges as the basis for a two-state solution, and the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel's Jewish character if they were to reach a deal quickly, officials close to the talks said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy.

The White House publicly appeared to hold out slight hope that enough progress could be made to stop Abbas from formally requesting statehood recognition.

"President Abbas has indicated his determination to go to the Security Council, so we take him at his word on that," Rhodes said.

The simmering situation is far from the scenario Obama envisioned when he spoke at the U.N. one year ago.

"We should reach for what's best within ourselves," Obama said last September in pushing for negotiated agreement on a sovereign Palestinian state. "If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations."

While the Palestinian statehood bid has overshadowed Obama's time at the U.N., he is also expected to use his speech to the international body to reflect on the sweeping changes in the world over the past year, most notably in the Arab world.

Rhodes said the president also would highlight significant foreign policy developments for the U.S., such as drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Obama on Wednesday also planned to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. He was to meet with leaders from Britain, France, Japan and South Sudan, the world's newest nation.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Bradley Klapper and Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC