Palestinians ask Obama: Why not endorse our Arab Spring?

President Obama is sending two Middle East envoys back to the region Tuesday for a final stab at dissuading the Palestinians from seeking a UN vote on statehood.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Maen Rashid Areikat, chief diplomat at the PLO's Washington office, speaks at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

The United States and Israel may insist that a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations next week will be disastrous for Middle East peace prospects, but Palestinian officials are painting the move in much more positive hues.

In a region where the Arab Spring is in full bloom, they argue, the Palestinian leadership has to offer its people something – especially with the peace process President Obama re-launched a year ago all but dead.

“This [UN move] is aimed at preserving the two-state solution,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian ambassador to Washington. “We are trying to keep hope alive among the Palestinian people that this [two-state solution] is going to be feasible.”

Speaking at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday, Mr. Areikat said that while the UN bid for statehood is not aimed at souring relations with the US, the Obama administration should consider how opposing the Palestinians’ statehood initiative will come across among freedom-seeking Arabs and around the world.

Calling the Palestinians’ UN bid “an issue of national pride for a people who want to be independent and free,” Areikat said it is not the kind of initiative that Arabs and others expect America to oppose. “I don’t think it’s the natural role for the US to block the admission of a state” to the United Nations, he said, adding that such action is not “compatible with US principles.”

The US-educated diplomat offered his comments to Washington reporters only hours after the Palestinian Liberation Organization committee reportedly decided to take the bid for statehood to the UN Security Council next week. Areikat is the chief diplomat at the PLO’s Washington office.

The Obama administration has said it would veto any Palestinian petition submitted to the Security Council for full UN membership. But the administration still hopes to avoid that step: President Obama on Tuesday was to send his Middle East envoys, David Hale and Dennis Ross, back to the region for a final stab at dissuading the Palestinians from seeking a UN vote.

The two envoys last visited the region just over a week ago, but according to Palestinians had nothing more to offer than the threat of a US veto. Mr. Hale is the special Mideast envoy who replaced former Senator George Mitchell after his resignation in May, while Mr. Ross is Obama’s chief Middle East adviser in the National Security Council.

It was not immediately clear what, if any, new offer the envoys had to make to the Palestinian leadership in exchange for dropping the UN bid. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he could forego the UN bid if presented with a serious plan for direct negotiations with Israel, but he says the plan would have to include a halt to Israeli settlement construction.

Areikat said the Palestinians appreciate how Obama made the peace process an early priority of his administration, but he added that the Obama administration turned out to be no different from previous ones when it came to dealing with Israel.

Rather than using its “leverage” with the Israeli government to get it back to the negotiating table, the administration “gave in and gave up,” he says.

The Palestinian campaign to secure statehood through the UN has spawned a number of reactions in the US Congress, including bills in the House of Representatives that would cut off US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

But Areikat insists the Palestinians aren’t going to make decisions about their path to statehood based on threats to withdraw foreign assistance. “We are not going to allow financial aid to be a sword over our necks,” he said.

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