UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – President Barack Obama, trying to avert a clash over Palestinian statehood, told the United Nations on Wednesday there was no substitute for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or any short cut to peace.
With U.S. credibility and influence in the Middle East at stake, Obama wants to dissuade the Palestinians from asking the U.N. Security Council for statehood in the teeth of Israeli anger and a U.S. threat to use its veto if it came to a vote.
But a senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, said, “We will cordially and respectfully tell him 'no'.”
The Palestinians, however, would give the Security Council “some time” to mull the statehood claim before they took it to the U.N. General Assembly, he told a news conference.
Flag-waving Palestinians filled the squares of West Bank cities to rally behind the initiative at the United Nations.
A year after telling the General Assembly he hoped to see a Palestinian state born by now, the U.S. president said creating such a state alongside Israel remained his goal.
“But the question isn't the goal we seek — the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades,” he said.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now,” Obama said.
“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 added.
However, it is the failure of 20 years of U.S.-brokered negotiations that has driven Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take his quest for a state to the United Nations — a ploy that could embarrass the United States by forcing it to protect its Israeli ally against the tide of world opinion.
And although Obama said he had set out a new basis for negotiations in May, chances of reviving peace talks look bleak.
The two sides are far apart. The Palestinians are divided internally and Obama will not want to risk alienating Israel's powerful U.S. support base by pressing for Israeli concessions as he enters a tough battle for re-election next year.
The Palestinians see statehood as opening the way for negotiations between equals. Israel says the Palestinian move aims at de-legitimizing the Jewish state.
The drama at the United Nations is playing out as Arab uprisings are transforming the Middle Eastern landscape.
Obama pledged support for Arab democratic change, called for more U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and urged Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations — twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.
“There is a future of greater opportunity for the people of these nations if their governments meet their obligations. But if they continue down a path that is outside international law, they must be met with greater pressure and isolation,” he said.
Iran freed two Americans held for spying, a day before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the United Nations. The Iranian leader has described it as a compassionate release.
Obama later met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and assured him of unwavering U.S. support. Netanyahu said the Palestinian action at the United Nations was doomed to fail.
Obama was also due to appeal to Abbas in person not to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with an application for full membership of the world body on Friday.
In one of several frantic efforts to avert a diplomatic. disaster, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the United Nations to grant the Palestinians the status of observer state, like the Vatican, while outlining a one-year roadmap to peace.
“Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state,” he said, adding that a veto in the Security Council could start a new cycle of violence in the Middle East.
The council could delay action on Abbas' request, giving the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators — more time to craft a statement that could coax both sides back to the table.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Obama's speech was a real disappointment.
“You would think that the Palestinians are occupying Israel,” she said in a conference call with reporters, accusing Obama of showing empathy with Israelis, but not Palestinians.
She also complained that his approval of principles of freedom and self-determination appeared to be selective.
“They apply to every Arab individual, but when it comes to Palestinians suffering from an oppressive foreign military occupation, somehow … these principles do not apply. They only apply when Arabs rebel against their own oppressive regime.”
Whatever happens at the United Nations, Palestinians will remain under Israeli occupation and any nominal state would lack recognized borders or real independence and sovereignty.
It is a measure of their desperation that they seem determined to press on with an initiative that could incur financial retribution from Israel and the United States.
In his speech to the annual U.N. General Assembly, Ban asked governments to show solidarity in meeting “extraordinary challenges” for the world body, ranging from development and climate change to peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.
“Without resources, we cannot deliver. Today, I ask governments that have traditionally borne the lion's share of the costs to not flag in their generosity,” he declared, pledging to streamline U.N. budgets to “do more with less.”
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Matt Spetalnick, Laura MacInnis, John Irish, Emmanuel Jarry, Daniel Bases and Patrick Worsnip at United Nations, Tom Perry in Ramallah; Editing by Doina Chiacu)