US President Barack Obama reportedly refused calls by a top Democratic senator that he speak out publicly against a Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations.
A report in the Washington political journal Politico cited “White House officials and Senate aides,” who confirmed that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tried on two occasions to obtain such a public commitment from Obama, and was twice rebuffed by the president.
Reid was seeking Obama’s commitment on the Palestinian issue to help shore up Democratic support for the Iran deal, which was opposed vehemently by Israeli leaders.
Obama’s refusal, the report said, “highlights how wide the gulf between the Obama administration and Israeli government has become.” The rebuff “unfolded in the context of a personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu that’s become highly toxic, poisoning US-Israeli relations more widely.”
The US has long supported Israel’s position at the UN that Palestinian statehood could only be achieved through direct talks with Israel, rather than the unilateral strategy of turning to international organizations adopted in recent years by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
If the US, at least for the duration of the Obama presidency, which ends January 2017, is pulling back from that commitment, it may signal a shift in that American backing that has ensured no Palestinian effort could make meaningful headway at the UN in the past.
The White House was especially incensed when Netanyahu appeared to say during his reelection campaign in March that a Palestinian state would not come into being “on my watch.” Netanyahu partially retracted the remarks after the election, but Obama administration officials said in the wake of the comment that, in Politico’s words, “it was reassessing its position on blocking a Security Council resolution.”
On March 19, two days after the election, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome. Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to reevaluate our position in this matter.”
According to the report, Reid approached White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough after Earnest’s March comments and urged that the White House retract its threat.
McDonough told Reid, who is among Obama’s closest allies in Congress, that the administration would “look into it,” but did not publicly retract its statement.
That was the first appeal from Reid to be rebuffed. The second came during the fight over the Iran nuclear deal in Congress in recent months, when Reid hoped a declaration of support for Israel could help calm Democrats worried that their support for the deal could paint them as anti-Israel.
“McDonough didn’t quite say no to Reid,” the report said. “He essentially said not yet. But the answer essentially boiled down to no. The White House said it was opposed to the Palestinians going the UN route, but that Obama wouldn’t make a public declaration himself.”
White House sources told Politico that Obama’s decision not to publicize the administration’s position on a Palestinian UN resolution “isn’t meant to exert leverage over Netanyahu, as something to trade to get him back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians,” nor “are they holding out on a presidential declaration to preserve a future olive branch to improve a relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.”
“The United States has long been, is today, and will remain committed to achieving the peace that Palestinians and Israelis deserve: two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price explained. “We continue to believe that Palestinian efforts to pursue endorsements of statehood claims through the UN system outside of a negotiated settlement are counterproductive.”