NEW YORK, NY — Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday morning, President Obama tried to answer critics who suggest he helped pave the way towards the current diplomatic kerfuffle over the pending UN resolution that would – prematurely, in the president’s view – make Palestine a sovereign state and member of the UN.
The president cautioned United Nations members that peace will only come “if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. …And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.”
The president made clear his opposition to the expected UN Security Council resolution. For weeks, American diplomats have been furiously lobbying the Palestinians to drop their bid, which the US has publicly stated it will veto.
Granting Palestine membership in the United Nations as a sovereign state before any peace treaty with Israel has been worked out, the US believes, could be a diplomatic hornet’s nest, with Israel all of a sudden occupying a sovereign nation, the Palestinians given access to the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council, and any future peace negotiations thrown into disarray.
The US also does not want to be put into the position of vetoing the resolution, which could inflame passions in the region and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Critics have suggested that the president raised hopes and expectations for a Palestinian state, putting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a situation where he felt he had to pursue this resolution to further the cause of a Palestinian state, given little progress.
The president, after all, hosted a big splashy September 1, 2010 White House photo op with Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan. He publicly pushed both sides – but most publicly Israel. He devoted time and resources towards the cause of Mideast peace, differentiating himself from previous Presidents who, his advisers noted, waited until the ends of their presidency to do so.
And in a quote that representatives from the Palestinian authority are quoting quite a bit this week, at last year’s speech President Obama said that if we “reach for what’s best within ourselves… when we come back here next year, we can 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.”
President Obama acknowledged that moment today, saying that “one year ago, I stood at this podium and 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 genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. ”
The president acknowledged being “frustrated by the lack of progress,” but he argued the Palestinian statehood gambit would be a mistake.
“The question isn’t the goal we seek – the question is how to reach it,” he said. “And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Notably the president did not today renew his call for Israel to return to its 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps, a call he made in May that angered Israeli officials. Today Mr. Obama said that “ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.”
The president offered a detailed and passionate defense of Israel’s “very real security concerns,” invoking the Holocaust and noting that the Jewish state “is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” that its “citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses” and that Israeli children “come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them.”
“These are facts!” the president said, deviating a bit from his prepared text. “They cannot be denied.”
The president addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after heralding successes in South Sudan, Tunisia, the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Egypt.
-Jake Tapper and Kirit Radia