Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations headquarters in 2010.
President Obama addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations headquarters in 2010. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama flies to New York on Monday for an annual presidential tradition that this year could become a diplomatic disaster.
It's the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, when world leaders gather to address the world's problems. The Palestinians plan to ask the U.N. to recognize them as an independent state this week, which puts Obama on a collision course with some of America's closest allies.
Each time Obama has spoken at the U.N., the push for Mideast peace has been one of his key themes. Last year, he told the audience, "When we come back here next year we could have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."
That's not exactly how it turned out, and today a peace agreement seems as far off as ever. Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis are nowhere on the horizon. The Palestinians want the U.N. to recognize them as an independent state anyway.
"We are going to the Security Council," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised in a televised speech Friday. "We need to have full membership at the U.N. We need a state, a seat at the United Nations and nothing more."
Even if the Palestinian move succeeds, it would lead to something far short of full statehood. And the Obama administration has promised to exercise the U.S. veto in the Security Council.
"Our fundamental baseline position is that those actions are not going to lead to a Palestinian state," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said at the White House on Friday. "The way to a Palestinian state is through negotiations between the parties. That's the only way you're going to be able to deal with issues of borders and security and the future of Jerusalem."
Many of America's closest allies support the Palestinians' bid, making this vote, and the promised veto, a messy diplomatic situation.
"It's now drama time," says David Makovsky, who directs the Project on the Mideast Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The brinksmanship of the Mideast is coming to the Northeast as they try to hammer out an alternative resolution that would avoid some of the maximalism and try to find a way to get out of this crisis."
Administration officials spent the last week in the region trying to head this off at the pass. So far it looks as though they failed.
Republicans, such as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, blame Obama. Bolton says the U.S. could have done far more to avert this crisis months ago.
"The impression that's left diplomatically by that kind of inaction is that the administration is really not that opposed to what the Palestinians are trying to do," Bolton says.
The White House says it has been clear and consistent about its opposition to the Palestinian move. But Bolton argues that the administration could have taken a page from his 1989 playbook, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization sought international recognition.
"We threatened to cut off funding to any U.N. organization that enhanced the status of the PLO. Worked like a charm," he says. "It stopped the PLO dead in its tracks. That was the end of the effort for 20 years, and if the administration were to do the same thing here I think it would have the same effect."
Some House Republicans are pushing a similar bill. When asked whether the White House would consider an approach that withholds funding for supporters of the Palestinians' push for U.N. recognition, Rhodes was noncommittal. "Until we know what the precise proposal is, we're not capable of speaking about potential consequences," he said.
Among conservatives, Obama has often been accused of being less pro-Israel than his predecessors. The White House pushes back against that characterization, but some Democrats fear that it is taking hold. Last week a Republican won a heavily Jewish, heavily Democratic House district in a special election in New York.
Former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida believes the accusation that Obama does not fully support Israel is false and malicious.
"This is the political season, and there are those in the political community that see an opportunity and seek to exploit it," says Wexler, who now directs the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace.
Wexler believes that heading into this U.N. meeting, the best thing the U.S. can do is help create a "day-after scenario" to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table once this storm subsides.
"It would be, in essence, making lemonade out of lemons no doubt, but I do foresee a possible scenario in which the American administration can assist the Palestinians and Israelis to mediate their positions and possibly move forward in a constructive fashion," he says.
Right now, however, the U.S. can be sure only of having the lemons.