On Europe trip, Obama to argue against a vote for a Palestinian state

Obama calls the statehood plan a misguided effort to isolate Israel. One factor Europeans might take into account at the time of a UN vote is whether the moribund peace process shows any life.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave as they arrive at College Green in Dublin, Ireland, on Monday, May 23, to start off his three-country European trip.

President Obama takes his ideas for addressing Middle East turmoil to Europe this week, including his proposal to back up the political reforms under way in Egypt and Tunisia with targeted international economic assistance.

But having told Israel Sunday that it is time to make “hard choices” for peace with the Palestinians before changes in the region make an accord even more difficult, Mr. Obama now has a new task: persuading the Europeans not to support the declaration of a Palestinian state in September.

The president said in his Middle East speech last week that plans afoot for the United Nations General Assembly to vote at its September meeting on a declaration of an independent Palestine would accomplish nothing for the Palestinians. Calling the plan a misguided attempt to isolate Israel, Obama said the United States would oppose the effort.

Now Obama’s attention shifts to convincing leaders with whom he will meet on his three-country European trip to reject the statehood proposal, which is already gaining significant support.

One factor determining Obama’s prospects for ultimately convincing Europeans will be whether the moribund peace process is showing any signs of life by the time of a General Assembly vote, some regional analysts say.

The Europeans can be dissuaded from voting with a UN majority on an independent Palestine “only if there is something else going” on in September, says Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in Teaneck, N.J. “If it’s just the status quo, the Europeans are going to feel they have to vote for a Palestinian state.”

No one expects the declaration to have trouble reaching a majority in the UN General Assembly, given the large number of developing and Islamic countries favorable to the Palestinians. But what the Obama administration wants to head off is a “yes” vote with the added heft of sizable Western support – a vote that would isolate both Israel and the US.

But the real key to where a lifeless peace process goes from here, Dr. Cohen says – and equally important, he adds, to what becomes of US-Israel relations – is the Israeli political system.

“The ball is now in the court of the Israeli political system,” he says. It’s up to Israel’s political forces to “decide whether [they] will accept [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu being in this confrontational state with the US for the rest of Obama’s first term,” he says.

After Mr. Netanyahu chose to go public at the White House Friday with his rejection of Obama’s proposal for restarting peace talks, only the Israeli political class can pressure Netanyahu to pull back from “the brink,” says Cohen, who has advised several administrations on Middle East policy and travels frequently to the region.

In a speech on the Middle East last Thursday, Obama said talks should restart on territory and security issues, with Israel’s pre-1967 borders, modified for anticipated land swaps, to serve as the basis for negotiating an Israel-Palestine border. When Netanyahu rejected the proposal Friday, he focused on the reasons that peace talks cannot proceed now – including the recent reconciliation accord between the Palestinians’ Fatah and Hamas organizations.

With Netanyahu scheduled to speak to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, the question now is whether Netanyahu chooses to play down or underscore his differences with Obama, several analysts say.

One clue to the Israeli leader’s decision may have come Sunday in Washington at the annual conference of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Cohen says.

“It was pretty clear from what we heard that he [Netanyahu] doesn’t have the blessing of AIPAC to turn this into a bigger controversy than it already is,” he says. “They don’t want him to turn the gap into a chasm.”

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