September 18, 2011

For Obama at U.N., Another Troubled Mideast Moment

Dreaming big, President Barack Obama once envisioned this would be the moment when world leaders would gather to herald a new state of Palestine.

What waits for him instead at the United Nations this coming week is closer to a diplomatic nightmare that may isolate the United States, anger Congress, deepen the Mideast divide and cloud the rest of his agenda.

Fed up with failed talks with Israel, Palestinians plan to appeal directly to the U.N. for statehood. Obama is adamant that that approach will undermine the chances of a Palestinian state by ignoring the unresolved issues with Israel. So now he is in the unenviable spot of opposing an effort whose goals he supports and he’s nearly standing alone in doing so.

From the U.S. perspective, the options are not good.

Should the Palestinians press their case for full U.N. membership to the Security Council, as seems likely, the U.S. will veto it.

If the Palestinians go before the General Assembly for a lesser but still elevated form of member recognition, the U.S. lacks a veto there and will simply vote against it, placing it firmly in the minority and perhaps inflaming the Arab world.

American diplomats were making a furious effort to sway the Palestinians to drop their bid and restart talks with Israel over borders and security. But as the time grew short ahead of Obama’s scheduled arrival in New York on Monday, his administration already was trying look beyond any U.N. action in hopes of influencing whatever comes next.

"This is lose, lose, lose," said Andrew Exum, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. "A resolution before the U.N. Security Council will hurt the United States with the Arabic-speaking world if Obama is seen as standing in the way. The Israeli government and the state of Israel will feel more isolated. And Palestinian frustration will only grow."

That frustration is surely felt at the White House, too.

Obama is facing questions about his commitment to Israel and his support among Jewish voters despite a record of support for Israel that analysts say has been strong and fair.

He has not been able to sway Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon a bid that Obama calls a distraction. Members of Congress are angry about what they see as the Palestinians’ end-run around Israel and warning of intervening themselves. The world has watched as Obama’s domestic fights with lawmakers have undermined the standing of them all.

"There’s no question that he comes in with a perception, globally, that his hands are tied," said Shibley Telhami, a scholar of Middle East policy and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

On the sidelines of the gathering, Obama will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in hopes of finding a way to restart Mideast negotiations. The White House said it had no such talks to announce with Abbas.

Even if the U.N. action on the Palestinian bid takes place after Obama departs New York, it is already casting a shadow over his broader message.

Over a busy stretch of meetings and speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday, Obama will give attention to the uprisings that have tossed aside dictators and sped hope for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East. The president and the U.N. itself want to hold up the international intervention in Libya as a success story of unity and strategic might.

Yet Obama steps back on the world stage under the weight of Mideast peace expectations that he himself set with his U.N. address of last year.