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President Barack Obama and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas pictured during a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Mandel Ngan / AFP PHOTO
President Barack Obama and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas pictured during a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Mandel Ngan / AFP PHOTO

Day of decision on Palestine

Obama speech criticised as Abbas prepares to submit Palestinian statehood bid at UN despite US pressure.

NEW YORK // Palestinians insisted they would take their statehood bid to the United Nations Security Council today in spite of intense international pressure to agree to a formula that would avert a direct confrontation with the United States.

The speech at the UN on Wednesday by Barack Obama, the US president, meanwhile, was received poorly on the streets of Cairo and Tripoli where people said his position on Palestinian statehood compared unfavourably with his stance on the Arab Spring.

By contrast, his words were welcomed effusively by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, when the two leaders met on Wednesday. Mr Netanyahu said Mr Obama could wear his pledge to veto a Palestinian application for full membership of the UN at the Security Council as a "badge of honour".

The US may be forced to wield that veto as various ideas put forward to avoid a vote appear to have failed. Under one reported proposal, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, would submit the Palestinian application today as planned, but agree to wait for a vote until efforts to establish another round of direct negotiations with Israel ran their course.

Husam Zomlot, spokesman for the Palestinian delegation in New York, angrily rejected the suggestion that the Palestinians had agreed to this, calling the plan "absolutely unfounded" and "deceitful".

"Nothing has changed. We are trying to implement a plan that has been gathering momentum for some time now."

Mr Zomlot said the Palestinians would wait only "a couple of days" after submitting their application and only for procedure, not for "political reasons", after which they would "act swiftly".

He did not, however, spell out what action Palestinians would take should the UN Security Council not vote on their application within that time frame, or what would happen after a vote at the Security Council. He would only say that all options are on the table including going to the UN General Assembly for a vote seeking full UN membership.

Mr Abbas and Mr Obama met on Wednesday night, but little appeared to have been achieved. Mr Zomlot simply described the talks as "very formal". Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, at a press conference on Wednesday, said Mr Obama had maintained the administration's "very transparent" position opposing "actions at the United Nations".

But Palestinians were clearly despondent with Mr Obama's speech to the General Assembly. They were disappointed that the American president's assertion that the "promise written down on paper - 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights' - is closer at hand", does not seem to apply to them.

At a press conference on Wednesday at the UN, Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Liberation Organization official, blamed domestic US politics for Mr Obama's speech and said that in an election year in the US it was inevitable that he would be addressing a "different audience".

Indeed, said Mr Shaath, that was partly the reason for the Palestine Liberation Organisation to go to the UN. If the US is not now in a position to push for a two-state solution, the international community needed to be consulted. The PLO does not believe Palestinians can wait any longer, while land which could form part of a future state disappears to Israeli settlements.

The Palestinian UN bid is also evidence of a near total lack of faith in US mediation. If an American president like Mr Obama - whose Cairo speech in 2009 held out so much promise and who has supported the democratic aspirations of Libyans, Syrian, Tunisians and Egyptians - cannot secure progress towards an end to the Israeli occupation, it only solidifies the already prevalent view that the US cannot be trusted to be a neutral mediator.

The US is also likely to disappoint a broader audience, said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

"If the US is interested in changing their image in the area, it won't be able to do that by standing against a resolution that calls on people to have independence and freedom."

Yet that is exactly the message that Mr Obama seemed to send Palestinians on Wednesday. It was certainly the message received in Ramallah where demonstrators took to the streets to protest a speech they said placed the American president squarely on the side of the Israeli occupation.

That was also the message understood in other countries. In Cairo, an editorial in the government-owned Al Ahram newspaper criticised years of stagnation in the peace process under US auspices and said a vote at the UN might "at least revive the issue at a political level."

And while Egyptians remain preoccupied with their own issues, some saw Mr Obama's speech simply as a sop to a domestic audience.

"I think Obama is manipulating the situation because he has his eye on the elections," said Rasha Ramsi, a graduate student studying political science at Cairo University. "He said that the only solution is to negotiate and that a UN resolution will never solve this problem. Well, then what is the point of having the UN?"

Libyans too had time to consider the Palestinian plight at the UN amid their own travails. At a clothes shop in Tripoli, Souad Fetouri, a charity worker, said she had been disappointed by Mr Obama's decision to block UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

"In the beginning western countries helped us in Libya for humanitarian reasons," she said. "But in the end, it always comes down to interest."

Malek Turki, 25, who works at a nearby cafe, said he felt Mr Obama's presidency had run its course.

"Next year I want to see someone new," he said. "Four years of Obama is enough. It's true he encouraged revolutionaries, and that's good. But I don't agree with how he's dealing with Palestine, and look at Syria - there he's doing nothing at all."


With additional reporting by Bradley Hope in Cairo and John Thorne in Tripoli

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