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US veto

September 19, 2011

With the Middle East peace process stalled, the Palestinians are planning to seek full UN membership. The Obama administration, however, has made clear that peace can only come through direct negotiations with Israel.

Obama at a conference of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee
Israel enjoys deeply rooted bipartisan support in the USImage: AP

When it comes to the Palestinian bid to acquire full membership in the United Nations, the position of the US government could not be clearer.

President Barack Obama has already said he "strongly believes" it is a "mistake" for the Palestinians to seek statehood through the UN instead of through direct, bilateral negotiations with the Israelis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has confirmed Obama's position, saying the route to a lasting solution "lies in Jerusalem and Ramallah, not in New York."

Yet just last September, Obama sounded quite optimistic about the chances for a rapid settlement of the more than 60-year-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, the president declared at that time that it was possible to reach a two-state solution within a year. That year has come and gone and a peace agreement seems farther away than ever before.

Now, Obama seems prepared to do the exact opposite of what he promised last September - vote against the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the UN Security Council.

Congress united

In a rare display of bipartisanship in an otherwise divided political establishment, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives supports the executive branch's opposition to the Palestinian UN bid.

Israel has always enjoyed overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, a political reality put on public display in the House's Foreign Affairs Committee.

"This step, which runs counter to the repeated requests of the United States and to prior Palestinian commitments, is likely to have disastrous consequences," said former committee chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California.

Obama with Netanyahu and Abbas
Obama has never developed a working relationship with Netanyahu

Berman believes the campaign for UN recognition will only reduce the prospect of a Palestinian state that exists in safety. Washington may also decide to reduce the aid it gives to the Palestinians, according to Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the committee's current chairwoman.

"If a Palestinian state would be declared today, it would be neither democratic, nor peaceful, nor willing to negotiate with Israel," Ros-Lehtinen said on Wednesday. "By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion (1.8 billion euros) over the last five years, the US has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior."

Steve Chabot, a Republican representative from the state of Ohio, made his position completely clear, threatening to cut off virtually all of the assistance the Palestinians receive from the United States.

"If the Palestinians continue on their current path, the question before this Congress will not be what portion of our aid will be cut, but rather what - if any - portion will remain," he said.

Election politics

The bipartisan support for Israel leaves Obama with no other choice but to veto the Palestinian bid in the Security Council, according to Graeme Bannerman of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"The political consensus at this point is: veto that bill," Bannerman told Deutsche Welle.

Although much of the rest of the world views the Palestinian UN bid differently than the US, President Obama faces re-election next year and therefore cannot afford to show any demonstrative support for the Palestinians which could be interpreted as a confrontation with the Israelis. The Republicans are waiting for him to make a mistake, and the Middle East is a region that has a long history of mistakes.

Yet that doesn't mean the US president should be held solely responsible for the stalemate in the Middle East, according to Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has advised six US secretaries of state.

"You cannot blame him for the failure to resolve the status of Jerusalem, border security and refugees," Miller told Deutsche Welle. He adds that the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians are just not close enough to bridge, and the suspicions that exist between them are core and fundamental.

Empty Palestinian seat in UN
A Palestinian seat in the UN is likely to remain elusiveImage: picture alliance/dpa

Obama's mistake

Obama, however, made a major miscalculation when he insisted that the Israelis stop the expansion of settlements. Ultimately, the US president had to give in on his demand when Israel restarted construction.

"President Obama made his own situation worse by not focusing on the right issues, by raising expectations, by making settlements the be all and end all," said Miller.

Obama has also had trouble creating a constructive relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has hampered the president's efforts to make progress on a two-state solution from the very beginning.

"You can't achieve any progress without establishing a working relationship," said Miller, adding that Obama's problem with Netanyahu was that he couldn't decide whether to pander to him or punish him.

"It doesn't matter if you like the guy or don't like him, trust him or not, you have to work out a modus vivendi with the Israeli prime minister."

According to Miller, it remains - above all - a fundamental belief of the Americans that direct negotiations are the only way to end the Middle East conflict.

"You cannot abandon 25 years of American policy," he said.

Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington / slk
Editor: Martin Kuebler