Obama boxed-in on next Mideast move

President Obama addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 21, 2011.
AP Photo
President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly
President Obama addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2011.

As the U.N. Security Council takes up discussion Monday of the Palestinian bid for statehood, President Obama has some tough decisions to make about how to proceed with the peace process in the Middle East.

Mr. Obama's address to the U.N. General Assembly was supportive of Israel, and clear on the U.S. threat to veto the Palestinians' bid in the U.N. Security Council -- making it impossible for Palestine to become a state member of the U.N.

Video: Obama urges Palestinians to drop U.N. bid

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Mr. Obama for his speech, and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman congratulated him. But President Obama proposed no specific plan, leaving it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- in her role as U.S. representative to the Middle East Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union -- to plot the next steps.

Early Friday, despite U.S. and Israeli opposition and the vowed U.S. veto, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application for Palestinian membership at the U.N.

In their addresses to the U.N., both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left the door open to negotiations, with Israel's Prime Minister suggesting that the two meet at U.N. Headquarters while they were both still in New York, with no preconditions.

Then, after months without agreement, the Quartet delivered a short proposal for immediate peace talks: Israel and the Palestinians would meet within a month to agree to an agenda; three months to deliver comprehensive proposals on territory and security; and the parties would reach an agreement no later than 2012.

Within hours, the bloom was off the rose, at least for the Quartet's outline.

Abbas rejected the broad terms of the framework because it did not address the issue of settlements, and he predicted he would take his U.N. action to the General Assembly, seeking enhanced "observer state" status - where it would presumably win and show international support for his cause - within "weeks," not months.

There's pressure on all sides.

Abbas is soon to retire. He gained domestic credibility from the bid but needs now to have something to show for it.

Netanyahu knows that the Palestinian move at the U.N. isolates Israel at a time when feuds with Turkey and Egypt are unsettling, not to mention the danger lurking with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

President Obama, meanwhile, is in a box.

On the one hand, despite the strong support for Israel demonstrated in his U.N. speech, a number of former U.S. government Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, have pointed the finger at Israel for giving up on the peace process.

On the other hand, Dan Diker, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, and others, note the fact that Abbas had a settlement freeze for 10 months, and nothing resulted.

Adding urgency to Mr. Obama's dilemma is action being taken in the U.S. Congress. Several bills have been offered up by U.S. lawmakers which attempt to deal unilaterally with the issue:

  • The Solidarity with Israel Act, introduced by U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would eliminate U.S. funding for the United Nations if the Security Council or the General Assembly changes the Palestinians' current status.
  • The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a State Department funding bill that would close the D.C. office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization if the statehood bid is pursued.
  • Representative Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) introduced a Resolution in the House of Representatives to support Israel's right to annex Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to push for this vote at the United Nations, to name a few.

If any of these bills pass, it would put President Obama in the position of either signing or vetoing a move that would have a dramatic impact on the ground in the Middle East.

Israel's U.N. and U.S. Ambassadors told CBS News after the statehood bid was submitted that a meeting without any preconditions would be helpful to advance the agenda -- and the sooner the better.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor said the real issue is direct negotiations: "We negotiated peace with Egypt, it wasn't imposed on us, we negotiated peace with Jordan, it wasn't imposed from the outside, and that is the only way forward in order to achieve peace."

"The bid is not helpful to negotiations, but it does not preclude them," said Israel's U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren. "As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, he has his hands extended out for peace and he's ready to sit down, not just next week, but today in the U.N. building with Abu Mazen (Abbas) without preconditions in order to discuss all the outstanding issues in order to reach a two-state solution."

Time is short for Mr. Obama on this issue.

The Security Council will meet in closed-door consultations Monday. It could refer the issue to a committee (usually of all 15 members), or it could take no action in the short term. However, the U.N. Charter mandates that any application for statehood must meet criteria including being peace-loving and have a defined territory.

Charter rules also state that if the Council does not decide to recommend membership for the Palestinians, under their rules, they must submit a "special report" to the General Assembly. At that point, Abbas says, he will take his bid to the whole Assembly for a change in status to "observer state" - the broader request for recognition that would likely succeed.

Leadership from the U.S., an ally to Israel and financer of both Israel and the Palestinians, is now crucial to restarting some form of negotiations between the two parties.

The showdown in New York has set the ball rolling on a potentially dangerous path for the Middle East, and if President Obama doesn't find a way to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a meeting -- if not of the minds, then at least together in the same room -- the failure may soon loom large not only over the U.N. agenda, but the U.S. presidential campaign, and the tinderbox that is life on the ground in the Middle East.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.