WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama called a Palestinian move to seek unilateral recognition of statehood at the UN a “mistake” during a visit to London Wednesday.
He also spoke of Jerusalem and refugees as emotional issues that will require “wrenching compromise” by both sides to resolve, and called on the Palestinians to make concessions, as well as Israel.
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Asked whether he agreed with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s contention that the Palestinian refugees will not be returning to Israel, Obama reiterated his support for a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state and called the issues of refugees and Jerusalem “two questions that are extraordinarily emotional.”
Obama defended his call in a speech Thursday to address “the very hard-nosed but transparent” issues of security and borders first – referring to the 1967 lines with land swaps as a basis for talks – as an easier path to progress than dealing with all four issues at once.
Obama also said, “I strongly believe that for the Palestinians to take the United Nations route rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis is a mistake, that it does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people, it will not achieve their stated goal of achieving a Palestinian state.”
He added that “the United States will continue to make that argument both in the United Nations and in our various meetings around the world.”
US officials have explained Obama’s controversial comments on the 1967 lines as intended at least in part to encourage the Europeans that there is another path to negotiations, so that they would be willing to oppose the UN effort, indicating it was not a coincidence that the president’s remarks came before his trip this week to Europe.
Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who stood at Obama’s side during their joint press conference, welcomed his counterpart’s recent prescriptions on forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace, which the latter called “more urgent than ever.”
“The president’s speech [was] bold and visionary because I think it did an absolutely vital thing, which was to talk about ’67 borders with land swaps,” Cameron said. “If you think about what both sides absolutely need to know to start this process, those two things are in place.”
He described those two components as, for Israel, knowing that “America and her allies like Britain will always stand up for Israel’s right to exist, right to defend herself, right to secure borders.” And for Palestinians, it’s knowing “that we understand their need for dignity and for a Palestinian state, using the ’67 borders as land swaps as the start point.”
He added that with these two points clear, “neither side now has, I believe, the excuse to stand aside from talks,” and that when it came to the Palestinians’ going to the UN “in the end, the Palestinian state will only come about if the Palestinians and the Israelis can agree to it coming about.”
Yet Cameron said it wasn’t the right time to make a decision about the UN resolution since one hasn’t yet been written and “we want to discuss this within the European Union and try and maximize the leverage and pressure that the European Union can bring, frankly, on both sides to get this vital process moving.”
Middle East expert Rob Satloff noted that one of the ideas circulating in Washington as a way to defuse a Palestinian bid for a General Assembly recognition of statehood would be for the US to present its own Security Council resolution endorsing Obama’s vision.
He said it was likely the Americans were raising such a prospect with their counterparts during this week’s trip.
Though he assessed that the Israelis wouldn’t like to see such a resolution, it could help the Europeans feel they had contributed to pushing the talks along without needing to back a declaration of statehood, particularly since a Security Council resolution carries so much more weight than a General Assembly vote.
“It’s apples to oranges. One has real meaning, and the other is getting something off your chest,” he said, though he added the General Assembly declaration “would have real meaning if everyone in the world voted for it except the United States.”
Obama was also asked Wednesday whether he accepted Netanyahu’s characterization of Hamas as the Palestinian version of al-Qaida. While Obama didn’t directly refer to the comparison, he said that it’s “very difficult for us to get a Palestinian partner on the other side of the table that is not observing the basic Quartet principles” of renouncing violence, recognizing the State of Israel and abide by previous agreements.
“That is, I think, going to be a critical aspect of us being able to jump-start this process once again,” he said.
“As much as it’s important for the United States, as Israel’s closest friend and partner, to remind them of the urgency of achieving peace, I don’t want the Palestinians to forget that they have obligations as well,” he also said. “They are going to have to resolve in a credible way the meaning of this agreement between Fatah and Hamas if we’re going to have any prospect for peace moving forward.”
Israeli officials indicated that following their conversations with US
lawmakers during Netanyahu’s trip to Capitol Hill Tuesday, even a
Palestinian national unity government of technocrats – with no actual
members of Hamas but with the Islamic party’s blessing – wouldn’t be
acceptable when it came to continued US aid to the Palestinian
On Tuesday, Obama advisor Ben Rhodes went further in his comparison of Hamas and al-Qaida when asked about Netanyahu’s words.
“Hamas has in the past indiscriminately targeted innocent women and
children and men through the firing of rockets or through bombs on
buses,” he said. “They certainly share the characteristics of a
terrorist organization that has indiscriminately taken civilian life.”
He added that when it came to the “credible” answers the PA would need
to give about Hamas’s participation and stance towards Israel, “those
answers are going to have to include of course recognizing its right to
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