Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy

His address was like so much of the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian conduct in the peace process -- restricted by politics at home and unlikely to bring the parties together

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas listens as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York / Reuters

If you'd wanted to gauge how strained relations between the Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership have become, all you'd need do is watch the shaking heads of the Palestinian representatives at the United Nations General Assembly during the U.S. President's speech there on Wednesday.

Obama reiterated the American commitment to a two-state solution and the creation of an independent Palestine, both established U.S. policy. Rhetorically, however, his speech recognized most of the core elements of the Israeli narrative but virtually none of the Palestinian one.

Obama spoke about Israel being surrounded by enemies and powerful states that threaten its destruction. He expressed sympathy for Israelis being attacked by rockets and suicide bombers, and neighboring children being "taught to hate them." He invoked the Jewish narrative of exile, oppression, and the Holocaust.

All of which is fine, of course. But what was missing was virtually any acknowledgment of the Palestinian narrative, except for the right to statehood. He made no mention of the occupation, the settlements, the 1967 borders, the refugees, Jerusalem, or any other aspect of the Palestinian narrative or concerns.

Unfortunately, that he made such a deeply unbalanced speech was little surprise. It comes
in the middle of a crisis in relations between the Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, that is being intensified by the Palestinian insistence on seeking some form of recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN.

American opposition to the statehood bid is driven in part by a desire to protect the U.S.-brokered, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, although it has effectively broken down in recent years. It's also based on reasonable observations that such negotiations are ultimately the only way to fully resolve the conflict. No other party is seriously vying with the United States for the role of broker. Moreover, Israel would be deeply wary of any other way forward, given that it only really trusts the Americans.

The Obama administration isn't on particularly warm terms with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu either. Many in the administration regarded his last visit to Washington as a series of affronts, perhaps the most serious of which was Netanyahu's public lecturing of the U.S. president in a speech to Congress that seemed to make common cause with the same Republicans who are seeking to unseat the President in November. But the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel remains, essentially independent of political relations between the two governments, as Obama's nods to Israel's concerns in his speech reflect.

Indeed, Obama's UN address was at least as much driven by domestic political considerations as by frustration with Palestinian leaders, Israeli leaders, or the stalled peace process. Republicans are ruthlessly harassing him from his right on this issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry, currently the highest-polling GOP candidate for the presidential nomination, recently accused him of "appeasement" of the Palestinians, despite his tough stance on their UN initiative. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasted no time in denouncing the President's UN speech for not threatening, as she has, to defund the Palestinian Authority, the relevant U.S. commitments to the UN, and international agencies that work with the Palestinians, should they persist with the UN bid.

Presented by

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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