By Niall Stanage - 09/22/11 12:55 AM EDT
President Obama warned Palestinian leaders peace cannot be achieved through a declaration of statehood in a Wednesday speech at the United Nations General Assembly that was notable for its expressions of empathy for Israel.
Obama spoke in emotive terms about how “Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them.”
In contrast, the president’s acknowledgement of Palestinian rights was much more muted, and mostly confined to an admission that Palestinians had seen their desire for a sovereign state “delayed for much too long.”
“I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades,” Obama said. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Obama gave the address as negotiators pressed Palestinian leaders to back off from their demands that the U.N. vote to recognize a Palestinian state. The U.S. has vowed to vote against that request, but would like to avoid the vote altogether.
The fate of the Palestinians’ bid was still unclear at press time, with rumors flying that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, might submit some form of request for recognition to the U.N., but with the understanding that no immediate action would be taken.
However that plays out, Jewish supporters of Obama heaped praise on the president for delivering a markedly pro-Israel address.
“I hope it for once and for all puts to rest any doubts in anyone’s mind as to what the president’s relationship is with Israel,” Andrew Weinstein, a Florida lawyer prominent in Democratic circles, told The Hill.
Weinstein added that the speech “shows that the president has a keen understanding of what the average Israeli deals with on a daily basis. The specific examples he used really shows that he gets it.”
Obama supporters argued his speech was a powerful rebuttal to arguments from GOP presidential candidates.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Obama of “appeasement” on Tuesday, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused him of presiding over “an unmitigated diplomatic disaster.”
The speech stood in stark contrast to other notable addresses from the president on the subject: he referred during his June 2009 speech in Cairo to the Palestinians having to “endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation,” and he asserted in May of this year that any final deal to end the conflict would be based upon Israel’s 1967 borders, albeit with agreed land swaps.
Wednesday’s speech was notable for its omission of any mention of either occupation or the ’67 borders —part of the reason why it was so well received by the Israelis and met with dismay from those sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Obama during a bilateral meeting shortly after the General Assembly speech, telling reporters that the president’s blocking of the Palestinians’ statehood bid amounted to “a badge of honor.”
“I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor,” Netanyahu added.
Admirers and critics of Israel alike suggested there might have been an element of domestic political calculation in the president’s shift of emphasis.
George Birnbaum, a one-time Netanyahu aide who is now a consultant to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, told The Hill that Obama had “shown a sensitivity to Jewish voters” in the United States by making a speech that he viewed as deliberately “non-provocative” to Israeli sensibilities.
Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi — a supporter of Palestinian rights who was well-acquainted with Obama when both were teaching at the University of Chicago about a decade ago — declared himself “underwhelmed” by the U.N. speech.
“Very simply, we are in an election year and he’s losing. That’s what it really boils down to. Whatever the situation of the Palestinian people and occupation, it is obviously less important [to Obama] than what happened, or what is said to have happened, in the NY-9 election,” he said.
Khalidi was referring to the special congressional election held last week in New York, in which Republican Bob Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin, and bringing the seat into GOP hands for the first time since the 1920s. The result in the district, which has a substantial Jewish population, was seen as an instant “Exhibit A” for Republicans arguing that Obama was struggling to convince Jewish voters of his bona fides in his speech.
If the Palestinians do press ahead with their bid for statehood, it would undoubtedly be seen as a major diplomatic embarrassment for the Obama administration. But that cloud, large and dark though it may be, could also have a silver lining: namely that Obama’s deployment of a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council in response to the Palestinian bid could give further heft to his switch in emphasis.
Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz was at pains to point out that any political gain was, in his view, “for sure not [Obama’s] motivation.”
Still, he allowed, any use of the veto “so happens to be a net positive. It will be popular among Jewish Americans and it will have very little opposition among any substantial number of voters. There is no political downside.”
Sam Youngman contributed to this story.