In a speech made before the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama reversed a position he made on the same podium a year ago, calling the Palestinian aspiration for statehood "a shortcut" and urged allies such as Canada to stand behind him.
In an address largely devoted to praise for the initiatives taken by Arab peoples in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and South Sudan to free themselves from oppressive regimes, Mr. Obama was forced to confront an all-too-literal manifestation of his 2010 speech: An attempt by the Palestinians to win statehood this week through a United Nations resolution.
Mr. Obama urged member nations Wednesday to vote against it. Faced with a U.S. electorate opposed to such a move, a slew of Republican opponents campaigning against the motion just outside the UN, and an Israeli ally utterly unwilling to halt its illegal settlements and recognize a neighbouring Palestine, Mr. Obama found himself pouring cold water on the very idea he had championed.
"There is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades," he said, referring to the UN statehood bid. "Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations."
This was the opposite of the message he had delivered to the same assembly only a year before, when the prospect of a quick Palestinian declaration of statehood, along the pre-1967 Mideast War borders and accompanied by a cessation of Israeli settlements and Palestinian attacks, was precisely the subject of a statement at the UN.
"Those of us who are friends of Israel," he said on Sept. 22, 2010, "must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine." It was a message he repeated even more boldly in May, with a speech that laid out the conditions for a two-state solution.
But the Palestinian bid to turn Mr. Obama's vision into a fait accompli with a UN vote proved too difficult to fit into the fragile ecology of U.S. politics, where Republican presidential candidates have turned support for Israel into the chief foreign policy issue of the 2012 election. That left Mr. Obama to rally other countries, including Canada and Australia, into backing a "No" vote.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees that creating a Palestinian state requires ensuring Israel's security, and that can come only through negotiation. Canada, led by Mr. Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, mounted a two-track diplomatic effort to stop or delay a vote in the UN Security Council, and if it comes to a vote in the broader General Assembly, to reduce the margin of victory for Palestinian recognition.
On Wednesday, it fell to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking shortly after Mr. Obama, to make the case for a compromise – in fact, it was almost a repeat of Mr. Obama's 2010 words.
The French President suggested that the General Assembly vote on Friday to make Palestine an observer state – a status of symbolic value, and one that would not require a Security Council vote and would therefore pass immediately – and use this as the starting point for negotiations along a "precise timetable" he proposed, with borders to be agreed in six months and statehood finalized in a year.
"Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward," Mr. Sarkozy said. "Most important, it would mean emerging from a state of immobility that favours only the extremists."
In a speech later Wednesday afternoon to a more friendly crowd of Democrats at former president Bill Clinton's Global Initiative meeting, Mr. Obama hinted at his frustration with the domestic politics that paralyzed the statehood bid.
"I do envy President Clinton, you know, because when you're out of Washington, it turns out that you're just dealing with people who are reasonable all the time, and … nobody's looking to score points, nobody's looking at the polls on any particular issue," Mr. Obama said. "You're just trying to solve problems."