Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Obama's Little-Noticed Words Could Put U.S. in a Bind

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So many promises have been made and commitments broken in the insufferably long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that few Americans took note of the goal President Obama set during the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting last September -- he set September 2011 as a target date for achieving a Middle East peace deal that would allow for U.N. recognition of Palestine.

The rest of the world, however, heard Obama's words, and that could mean some difficult decisions for the U.S administration in the months ahead.

The September 2011 deadline was quickly endorsed by the European Union, and much of the world. At the time, there was a glimmer of hope in the Middle East: Israelis and Palestinians had had their first direct negotiations in nearly two years, and leaders on both sides declared they wanted peace.

A few days later, Obama addressed the world's leaders with the message that the stalemate could end. "The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution. We could come back next year as we have for the last 60 and make long speeches and read familiar list of grievances," said Obama. "Or we can say this time will be different. ... If we do, we can come back next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations."

But within weeks of Obama's General Assembly address, after the end of a moratorium on new Israeli settlement construction, talks between both sides broke down. An increase in rocket and mortar attacks alongside the smuggling of weapons by Hamas has since exacerbated the situation.

Recently, Palestinian leaders have been using the president's words to lobby nations to formally recognize Palestine -- defined by its 1967 borders -- when the General Assembly reconvenes in September.

But many see these efforts as a way to circumvent direct peace negotiations with Israel.

"It is irresponsible, particularly at a moment when the Middle East is in flames," said Ruth Wedgewood, an international law expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It jumps the gun in the way that destroys the roadmap process that, ironically, the U.N. was party to. It allows Hamas to say Israel is crossing an international border and illegally waging war."

More than 100 nations have said they already recognize Palestine as a state. Gaining U.N. membership typically requires a recommendation from the Security Council and the approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly, or 128 countries.

The U.S., which has a veto in the Security Council, has so far rejected Palestinian bids for recognition as an independent state without first brokering a peace deal with Israel.

"We do not support any unilateral effort by the Palestinians to go to the United Nations to try to obtain some authorization approval, vote, with respect to statehood, because we think you can only achieve the two-state solution, through negotiation," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Charlie Rose last week.

But the prospects of this happening grow by the day.

Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. French diplomats in the United Nations have signaled, along with other European allies, that they are strongly considering U.N. recognition of Palestine as a way to jump-start the stalled peace process.

Meeting Between Mahmoud Abbas and Nicolas Sarkozy

After their meeting, Abbas said in an interview with TV network France 24 that it would "not be coherent and logical" for the U.S. not to recognize a Palestinian state.

"We can't say that certain organizations or countries promised to recognize a Palestinian state. But all the signs they are sending show that they are awaiting the right moment to do so," said Abbas. "You notice that a certain number of European countries have recently sent additional delegations and official representatives to the Palestinian territories. From our side, we are already treating them like ambassadors."

In a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday, Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of Palestine at the U.N., said, "We urge countries that have not yet recognized the state of Palestine to do so at the earliest possible time to contribute to soon making our independence a reality."

Palestinian diplomats have been working feverishly to garner as much support from various nations as possible, because if the U.S. vetoes a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine, they'd still have the option of going before the General Assembly, where there is no veto power, but resolutions are nonbinding.

There is also talk, although few experts believe it would happen, of a "nuclear option" in which Palestinian diplomats would invoke a rarely used 1950 "uniting for peace" clause from the Korean War meant to block Soviet influence. The clause, in effect, states that if the Security Council can't effectively do its job, it would give the General Assembly the authority to bring forward a binding resolution.

In a speech to the Security Council, Meron Reuben, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N., echoed the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who recently met with U.N. officials to say, "We need solutions, not resolutions." He said that "peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations. It cannot be imposed from the outside." While Rueben addressed the several challenges Israel faces in jump-starting the stalled peace process, he focused most of his attention on security -- particularly on the rocket fire and the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinian Authority remains unable to control.

Palestinian diplomats have used the findings by various agencies, including the World Bank, that state certain government institutions within Palestinian territories have crossed the threshold for statehood. Palestinian officials would like the Mideast Quartet -- the mediating group consisting of the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia -- to take the lead. Last week, the U.S. blocked a meeting scheduled in Berlin.

Israeli newspapers have been buzzing with the prospects of U.N. recognition of Palestine, and what it may or may not mean.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to address a joint meeting of Congress next month, and U.N. recognition of Palestine will likely come up.