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Obama trip to UN: why it's not all about Palestinian statehood

Palestinian statehood is at the top of the agenda as President Obama heads to the UN this week. But meetings on the sidelines regarding a variety of issues could be even more significant.

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Comparing this week’s opening of the UN General Assembly to an industry’s annual convention, former UN official Mark Quarterman says the “less interesting things often happen in the convention meeting rooms and more interesting things happen on the margins – the bilateral meetings the president’s going to have, the small group meetings.

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“If you look at it this way, then the speeches become a lot less important and the interactions on issues that they’re just going to take advantage of being together become a lot more important,” adds Mr. Quarterman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Any time the US president speaks at the UN, the administration has at least one eye on domestic politics and the home audience. That is all the more true this year, as Obama enters a tough reelection campaign.

As his ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, made clear at a recent Monitor breakfast in Washington, Obama will use his time in New York to make the case that his deepening involvement in multilateral diplomacy – as opposed to the Bush administration’s more unilateral approach to the world – has served US interests while boosting America’s standing globally.

Although he is unlikely to say so publicly, Obama will be using his time in New York to drive home the point that the US is better off inside the UN tent – as imperfect as Ambassador Rice acknowledges that tent may be – than sitting on the outside.

The administration wants that message to contrast with congressional Republican efforts to significantly reduce US payments to the UN. These cuts would extend to humanitarian and development assistance that administration officials say earns the US goodwill and ultimately serves US national security interests.

Some of the president’s actions in New York are more political than others, some analysts say. They point to his plans to meet with Mr. Netanyahu while turning his back on Mr. Abbas a year after he brought both leaders to Washington for ill-fated direct peace talks.

The failure of those talks lies with both Mideast leaders, most regional analysts agree. And Netanyahu went so far as to publicly confront the US president in the White House over Obama’s May speech aimed at restarting the stalled negotiations.

Yet Obama will meet with Netanyahu in New York – only a few miles away, as political analysts point out, from the heavily Jewish and traditionally Democratic congressional district that earlier this month opted for a Republican in a special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner.

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