The Obama administration is turning up its rhetoric in opposition to a Palestinian plan to seek a United Nations vote for statehood later this month. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice called the move a “mistaken calculation” and a “dangerous diversion” Monday.
Until now, the administration has declared the US would veto a vote on Palestinian statehood in the Security Council and has suggested any vote in the UN General Assembly would be largely symbolic. Admittance of a full-fledged member-state at the UN requires an affirmative Security Council vote.
But Ambassador Rice took a considerably tougher stance on the looming Palestinian action Monday, insisting that recognition of a Palestinian state in the 193-member General Assembly would actually work against the Palestinians’ own interests. Speaking at a Monitor breakfast with Washington reporters, Rice said the “observer-state status” the General Assembly is empowered to grant still confers certain rights associated with a state.
“That is why we say [this action] is not symbolic, it is consequential.” Rice said.
Observer-state status, which is the UN category the Vatican falls into for example, would give the Palestinians access to certain international treaties and institutions such as the International Criminal Court. But the US says that by pressing ahead unilaterally the Palestinians would poison the environment for restarting negotiations towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The reality is, the absolute only way to achieve our goal [of] two states living side by side … is through direct negotiations,” Rice said. “There is no short cut.”
The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has not decided exactly what path of action it will take when the General Assembly convenes late this month in New York. Amid some indications the Palestinians could decide on a plan as early as Monday, Rice said the US has been working non-stop to dissuade them from seeking any UN vote.
But there is no question the Palestinians’ decision to give up on the moribund peace talks and turn to the UN for recognition has put the US, and President Obama in particular, in a negative light in the very region of the world Mr. Obama has sought to woo.
Beyond the Palestinians, Arabs and leaders across the Muslim world have seized upon the contrast between a US president who last year at the UN spoke of his goal of welcoming Palestine into the community of nations by this year’s General Assembly meeting, and a president who would now veto such an initiative.
Rice said that no other US administration had done more to try to advance the cause of Middle East peace, noting that Obama acted the day after taking office to set the peace process as one of his highest priorities. “You would be hard-pressed to find an administration that has done more from the first days in office,” she said.
Failure of the peace process to advance is not the result of any lack of American leadership, Rice said, but of the “calculations of the two parties.”
When reminded that South Sudan had been able to accede to UN membership over the past year with US support while Palestine had not, the US ambassador said the case of South Sudan was actually a prime example of how resolution of a conflict through creation of a new state can only work through direct negotiations.
One journalist questioned that comparison, however, noting that Sudan was under tremendous pressure from the entire international community (including the US) to agree to a breakaway state formed by its southern region, while Israel faces nothing similar.
Rice also took the opportunity of the approaching General Assembly session, when Obama will make the customary annual speech to the UN, to underscore what she called the successes of the Obama administration’s more engaged relations with the UN.
She cited advances in international efforts on nuclear security, toughening of measures against Iran and North Korea for their nuclear ambitions, and the UN’s role in safeguarding civilians in Libya, as areas where the US advanced its interests through greater international engagement.
Rice acknowledged that some members of Congress are promoting measures that would withhold at least part of US contributions to the UN with the goal of achieving certain reforms and policy changes.
But she said that the same tactics were tried in the 80’s and 90’s, with fewer results than the Obama administration’s “reform-from-within” approach has yielded.
All the funding cuts did was “reduce our standing and our ability to achieve the reforms we all want,” she said. “They are self-defeating and they don’t work.”