Obama's Challenges at the United Nations

Negotiating a tense Israel-Palestine dispute is just the beginning

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Global crises and the demands of geo-political summitry this week force President Obama to take a break from what the White House hoped would be a relentless focus on the domestic economy. Eleven days after he pledged to take his jobs message "to every corner of this country," the president left for New York on Monday afternoon for two days of diplomatic wrangling over the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the next step in Libya, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, and the growing banking crisis in Europe.

All resist easy solutions, most present daunting challenges to the United States, and some have potentially ominous repercussions for the American economy. Without question, this trip to the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly comes at an inconvenient time for a president trying to persuade a skeptical nation that he has the answer to their economic woes.

The public highlight of the trip will be Obama's speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday. But the real diplomatic work is likely to come out of public view, in a series of talks with other world leaders. The White House has scheduled 10 individual sessions in addition to the larger meetings. On Tuesday, he will meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to talk with new Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Salva Kiir, the new president of South Sudan.

A meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been scheduled but the White House has not said when it will take place. Other sessions also may be added.

The most ticklish diplomatic challenge awaiting the president in New York is the Palestinian push to have the world body recognize it as an independent state. Currently, the Palestinians are considered an "entity" in the U.N. Intense efforts to persuade the Palestinians to pursue a different course so far have failed. President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday told Ban Ki-moon that he will present his application to the Security Council on Friday.

The United States has made clear that it will veto the application, forcing Abbas to consider going to the General Assembly to request an upgrade from "entity" to "non-member state." That would likely pass, given the overwhelming support for the Palestinians among the 193-member body. But it would also risk a cut-off of aid from the United States and other allied countries.

Talking to reporters aboard his plane enroute to New York, Abbas acknowledged the fuss he has kicked up and the threat to that aid. "We decided to take this step and all hell has broken out against us," he said, according to Reuters. But he said he will not be discouraged. "From now until I give the speech, we have only one choice: going to the Security Council. Afterwards, we will sit and decide," he said.

The Obama administration has told the Palestinians, "You're not going to accomplish the objective of statehood through the U.N. General Assembly or the U.N. system at all," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. "For there to be a Palestinian state that realizes the aspirations of the Palestinian people, they need to work this out with Israel."

The dispute also has domestic political ramifications for Obama. Last week's stunning repudiation of the Democrats in a New York congressional district held by the party for eight decades was blamed in large part on Jewish unease about the president's position on Israel. Rhodes promised the president while in New York will affirm again "the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel."

The White House is determined not to let the Palestinian issue dominate the president's time in New York, though. While his speech on Wednesday will acknowledge his "frustration with the lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace," he has what Rhodes called "a broad agenda" that includes discussions with allies about what needs to happen next in Libya, consolidation of Arab spring democratization of the Middle East, and Rhodes said the president will also press the Security Council for "more robust action" against Syria.

Mark Quarterman, who spent 12 years working for the U.N. before joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describes the opening of the General Assembly as "really the annual convention of heads of state and governments." He said that the real business is conducted less in the official speeches and more "at the margins," in the small group meetings and hallway discussions. And this year, much of that talk will be about the continuing European economic weakness and the threat it poses to American economic recovery.

"That will be the conversation in the hallways," said Heather A. Conley, who was deputy secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in President George W. Bush's first term. "I believe that we are watching what has been over an 18-month crisis starting to morph into a slow-motion collapse. And this is the story for Europe. This is the story for the global economy. And watching that in relationship to how events unfold in New York will be very, very interesting."

What is happening in Europe and developments in the Middle East could overshadow the president's speech. "There are much more important, almost tectonic, issues going on in the world economy," Quarterman said. "This is a chance for President Obama to highlight the positive occurrences as regards Libya, and maybe push a little bit on Syria and a few other issues."