At U.N., Obama Faces Palestinian Challenge

Sep 20, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 12:41 pm

Palestinians say they still plan to seek recognition of their statehood from the U.N. Security Council this week, throwing more than a wrench into the diplomatic works for the Obama administration.

President Obama has promised to veto the move in the Security Council. That puts the U.S. on sound footing with Israel, but on a collision course with European and Middle Eastern allies who support the Palestinians' bid.

Most of that conflict and dissent is happening out of sight, behind closed doors. Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday. While reporters were in the room, neither said a word about the Palestinians. According to White House officials, the two leaders only talked about it once journalists left.

Obama started his Tuesday at the U.N. by congratulating the international community for presenting a unified front — in contrast to the differences on the Palestinian issue — on Libya and getting a positive result.

"Libya is a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one," he said.

Representatives from more than 60 governments gathered in a huge U.N. conference room to create a plan for post-Gadhafi Libya. The crowd gave a standing ovation when the U.N. and Libyan flags were presented side by side on the podium.

Obama framed this as a moment of vindication. Domestic critics had attacked his approach to Libya for months. But addressing the U.N. on Tuesday, he said Libya's freedom affirms his approach to global problems, emphasizing shared international responsibility.

"Today I can announce that our ambassador is on his way back to Tripoli, and this week the American flag that was lowered before our embassy was attacked will be raised again over a reopened American Embassy," he said.

Obama pledged that the world will stand with Libya as it transitions to democracy. He then left the U.N. for his hotel, and a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber had killed Afghanistan's former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had been in charge of finding a political end to the decade-old war. Obama promised that such violence will not change the U.S. mission.

"Despite this incident, we will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom and safety and security and prosperity," he said.

Still, the assassination underscores the serious problems that still exist in Afghanistan as the U.S. tries to hand the country back over to the Afghans.

This was the first time Karzai and Obama have met in person since the U.S. established a timeline for troop withdrawal. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that drawdown, and the exit from Iraq, will be two themes of Obama's speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday. Broadly, Rhodes said, the address will take stock of where the international community is.

"He will speak to the enormous convulsions and transformation of the last year, whether it be the Arab Spring, South Sudan joining the United Nations, and of course the Libya operation, which really represents precisely the type of international cooperation that the president believes the United Nations was created to do," he said.

Wednesday also presents Obama an opportunity to explain the U.S. position on the Palestinians. He has to walk a fine line, however. On his right, conservatives accuse him of not being supportive enough of Israel. On his left, international allies say it's inconsistent to argue for self-determination in other Arab countries and oppose the Palestinians' bid at the U.N.

After his speech, Obama will meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And NPR's Ari Shapiro is here to talk about it. Good morning, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes this so awkward for the president?

SHAPIRO: For example, yesterday, President Obama met with the Turkey's prime minister. Turkey is one of the main American allies who supports the Palestinians. But when reporters were in the room at the beginning of that meeting, neither man said a word about Palestine. According to White House officials, they talked about it, but only behind closed doors after the reporters had left.

INSKEEP: So, behind closed doors, you have the president with the same difficulty that he tried to transcend at the beginning of his administration, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. That's what's happening behind closed doors, what about on the public agenda?

SHAPIRO: Well, the day began yesterday, with an issue, where, in contrast to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, President Obama congratulated the international community on presenting a unified front and getting a positive result.

BARACK OBAMA: Libya is a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one.

SHAPIRO: Representatives from more than 60 governments gathered in a huge U.N. conference room to create a plan for post-Gadhafi Libya.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The crowd gave a standing ovation when the U.N. and Libyan flags were presented side-by-side on the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: President Obama framed this as a moment of vindication. Domestic critics had attacked his approach to Libya for months. But addressing the U.N. yesterday, the president said Libya's freedom today affirms his approach to global problems, emphasizing shared international responsibility.

OBAMA: Today I can announce that our ambassador is on his way back to Tripoli. And this week, the American flag that was lowered before our embassy was attacked, will be raised again over a reopened American Embassy.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama, standing on the opposite side of the room from reporters with their microphones, promised that such violence will not change the U.S. mission.

OBAMA: Despite this incident, we will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom and safety and security and prosperity.

SHAPIRO: He will speak to the enormous convulsions and transformation of the last year - whether it be the Arab Spring, whether it be South Sudan joining the United Nations, and of course the Libya operation which really, again, represents precisely the type of international cooperation that the president believes the United Nations was created to do.

INSKEEP: And, Ari, talking about all those complexities, all those convulsions, and yet some of the same old conflicts.

SHAPIRO: Today is President Obama's chance to explain why he holds the position he does. Then he's going to have individual meetings with Israeli leader Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Abbas, and perhaps dream of the day when he might meet with both at once.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks very much. We'll hear how the President charts a course between those two in his speech today.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ari Shapiro here in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.