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Palestinian Negotiator Wants Obama to Back Statehood If Talks Fail

A Palestinian official says he expects the Obama administration to support a recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations, if peace talks do not resume with Israel. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke Thursday in Washington at a conference that examined changes in the Middle East.

Palestinian leaders say they are considering asking the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state, following Israel's resumption of settlement building in east Jerusalem.

Erekat says he expects U.S. President Barack Obama to support the idea because of his remarks at the U.N. in September. In a speech to the General Assembly, Mr. Obama said an independent state of Palestine should be able to join the world body next year.

Erekat told a conference at the Middle East Institute that he did not discuss statehood in a meeting earlier in the day with Middle East envoy George Mitchell and other U.S. officials. "I did not talk about it, but I hope the United States of America, when we go to the Security Council to seek a full membership for the State of Palestine, will not oppose this," he said.

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States disapproves of unilateral steps by the Palestinians or Israel outside of the peace process.

According to Erekat, U.S. officials told him they need two to three weeks to get the talks going again. Erekat said that to restart the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to reinstate a settlement construction freeze that expired in September. "The choice is his, settlements or peace. He cannot have both," Erekat said.

The Palestinian negotiator dismissed the notion that Republican Party gains in Tuesday's U.S. midterm elections would change Washington's stance in the peace process. He noted that Republican presidents have been involved in efforts for Palestinian statehood. "The first president to recognize the state of Palestine in a two state solution was President [George W.] Bush," he said.

Some analysts expect that conservative Republicans will pressure the Obama administration to focus more on strengthening the U.S. economy than on some foreign policy issues like Israel and the Palestinians.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli negotiator and ambassador to Washington during the 1990s, says that is one of two likely scenarios for President Obama. "The other is that he would take an attitude of 'I may or may not be reelected. But I need to leave my mark on history, and the Arab-Israeli peace process is one such place,' which would lead to deeper engagement. And I hope this is the route that he will take," he said.

Although relatively little progress was made in the currently-suspended Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the speakers at the conference said the Middle East is going through a fundamental transformation.

Political scientist Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland said the Iraq war and other post-Cold War developments are creating a tripolar region that excludes Arab capitals. "Even Arab elites feel that the relative clout of Arab states has diminished to the benefit of non-Arab states Israel, Turkey and Iran," Telhami said.

Telhami said he has conducted public opinion surveys asking Arabs to name their heroes and that Arab leaders do not end up in first place. This year, he said, the winner was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.