Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Obama: Palestinian Statehood Must Be Achieved Through Talks With Israel

US president tells UN general assembly Palestinians deserve their own state – but defends threat to veto any bid on Friday
By Chris McGreal in New York and Harriet Sherwood in Ramallah
Barack Obama at the UN
Barack Obama addresses the United Nations general assembly today. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Barack Obama has infuriated Palestinian leaders with a lengthy defence of the US threat to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations while praising revolutions in other parts of the Arab world.
Obama told the opening of the UN general assembly in New York that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, not security council resolutions, are the way to ensure a lasting peace. But he was challenged by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who said that US leadership on the issue has failed and called for a new initiative involving Europe and Arab states to see the birth of a Palestinian state within a year.
Obama said he believes "the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own", and that that vision had been delayed for too long. But he offered no new initiatives and, tellingly, did not repeat earlier calls – for which he has come under fire – for negotiations to be based on the borders at the time of the 1967 war, with agreed land swaps.
Obama, who went from his speech to a meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was dismissive of the plan put forward by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to ask the security council on Friday to recognise Palestine as a state. The US has said it will veto such a move.
"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. 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," he said as Abbas shook his head.
The Palestinians responded by saying they will not be deterred from pursuing their request to the security council for full membership of the UN, and that if he US wields its veto they will then seek a vote in the general assembly, which has the power to grant observer status.
Obama spoke about the US's "unshakeable" commitment to Israel's security, and said any lasting peace must recognise Israel's "very real security concerns". He spoke at length about Israeli suffering, but to the consternation of the Palestinians made no mention of the difficulties of life under occupation, or the impact of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The president said: "Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbours that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel's children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them.
"Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.
"Friends of the Palestinians do them no favours by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognise the need to pursue a two state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine."
Obama's failure to offer any new hope of progress toward a Palestinian state stood in sharp contrast to his praise of the quest for freedom in parts of the Arab world and beyond.
"Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open," he said.
Sarkozy said the "miracle" of the Arab spring is a reminder of the moral and political obligation to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, without naming the US, he said that its oversight of years of failed negotiations means a new approach is required.
Sarkozy said: "We can wait no longer – the method is no longer working. Change the method. Cease believing that a single country or a small group of countries can solve a problem of such complexity."
Sarkozy called for a fresh set of negotiations, with wider involvement of European and Arab nations, based on a timetable that would see the borders of a Palestinian state agreed within six months and a final deal within a year.
"We should not look for the perfect solution. Choose the path of compromise," he said.
But Sarkozy also said that the Palestinians were mistaken to seek full recognition as a state by the UN security council. He warned that if the bid went ahead and it was vetoed by the US violence could be caused. The French president said the Palestinians should instead ask to be admitted as an observer state to the general assembly, a move he said would give them hope.
A senior Palestinian official said privately that Obama's speech was a "disaster", and that the Palestinian leadership has lost confidence in him to be a neutral intermediary.
In public the Palestinians were more circumspect. Another senior official, Nabil Shaath, the former Palestinian chief negotiator and part of the delegation at the UN, criticised Obama's speech for failing to address what he said is the primary obstacle to peace negotiations – the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
"The serious gap in the speech had to do with the absolute minimum for the peace process … settlement policies, de-Arabisation of Jerusalem, the siege of Gaza," he said.
Shaath said that the settlement issue remained a principal obstacle to agreeing to a proposal by the UN, US, EU and Russia to restart negotiations and avoid a showdown in the security council. The Palestinians are demanding that the peace quartet require Israel to halt all settlement construction during talks.
Shaath said that despite US opposition, the Palestinians will submit their request for full UN membership to the security council on Friday and press for an early vote. If that fails to happen, or if the US exercises its veto, the Palestinians will take the request to the UN general assembly. Shaath said the Palestinians have an assurance from the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, that a vote in the security council would not be delayed for political reasons, only by procedure. But Shaath did not sound confident that would be the case.
Shaath said nine members of the security council already recognise Palestine as a state, precisely the number they need to win the vote and a moral victory, even if the US applies its veto. He said he would expect all nine to back the Palestinian request, but recognised that some of them are under considerable pressure from the Americans to abstain.
Asked if the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, would respond to a request by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to open talks at the UN, Shaath called Netanyahu's offer "highly theatrical".
Obama's speech was also greeted with despair in the West Bank.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent politician and former Palestinian presidential candidate, said he was disappointed.
"It clearly shows the double standards of the US when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Obama spoke about freedom, human rights, justice in South Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt – but not for the Palestinians," he said.
"His version of reality is wrong. He claims that Israel is the victim in this conflict and that's not true. He doesn't see that this is not a struggle between two equal sides, but between an oppressor and the oppressed, and occupier and the occupied."
A Ramallah shop owner, Marwan Jubeh, said: "Israel and the US are one and the same: the US is Israel, and Israel is the US. Israel doesn't want to give the Palestinians anything and Obama can't do anything without Israel because Congress is pro-Israel."
In contrast, Netanyahu praised Obama when the two met after the US president's speech. The Israeli prime minister described Obama's pledge to block the Palestinian move at the UN security council as a "badge of honour".
Netanyahu said he is ready for talks with the Palestinians but he was sceptical about what they could achieve.
"I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state but they're not prepared yet to make peace with Israel," he said.
This report was published in the Guardian on 21/09/2011

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