World leaders and heads of state — including President Barack Obama and much of the Washington diplomatic corps — have descended on New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly today. With Europe on the brink of financial collapse, three U.S. wars overseas, and powderkegs threatening to erupt across the Middle East, it promises to be one of the more exciting Assemblies in recent memory.President Obama’s schedule this week underscores some of the major foreign policy challenges facing his administration, even as the White House desperately tries to keep the focus on its domestic economic agenda.
The President, who will address the Assembly tomorrow, is taking care of some major issues on the foreign policy agenda today. Per the White House, Obama has meetings scheduled with the new chairman of Libya’s TNC to discuss the country’s political transition; Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai to discuss the transition to Afghan security forces; the president of Brazil about a new open government partnership; and the prime minister of Turkey.
Overshadowing the entire agenda, of course, is the Palestinian plan to present a bid for statehood at the Assembly this week. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he would present an application immediately after his Friday address to the General Assembly.
Diplomats are scrambling frantically to make sure that doesn’t happen. The NYT reports that envoys from the U.S., Russia, Europe, and the United Nations are frantically trying to guide Israelis and Palestinians back into direct negotiations to avoid the potential fallout of a unilateral bid for statehood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Times she is engaged in intense negotiations to pursue a two-state solution.
“We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations,” Clinton said Monday. “No matter what does or doesn’t happen this week, it will not produce the kind of result that everyone is hoping for.”
In addition to the major foreign policy implications a Palestinian bid for statehood — and a U.S. veto — would have, the looming application could pose a substantial political threat for Obama at home.
Here’s why the Israeli-Palestinian UN debacle could be a problem:
- It could knock Obama off his message. After a year that has been dictated by foreign policy issues, the Obama administration has finally turned its attention to its domestic economic agenda. Another foreign policy crisis — particularly one that interests the American public, like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis does — has the potential to totally derail the White House’s strictly-jobs message this week.
- It highlights what many perceive to be the Obama administration’s major foreign policy failure. Obama has arguably had some big foreign policy wins this year (i.e. killing Osama bin Laden raid), but helping achieve Middle East peace is not one of them. The administration’s relationship with Israel has been rocky, and critics alternately accuse the president for being too harsh, and for not taking a strong enough stance in peace negotiations. Whatever the outcome of the Palestinian bid, these criticisms are sure to make their way back into the national (and international) conversation this week.
- Criticism of Obama’s policies toward Israel gives his 2012 Republican opponents a line of attack that will seem particularly relevant after last week’s Republican upset in the special election to represent New York’s heavily Jewish 9th Congressional District. GOP frontrunner Rick Perry plans to go after Obama on this point this morning at a New York rally with Israeli and Jewish American diplomats and activists.
- The Republican attacks will have a major forum to attack Obama at the Florida GOP debate Thursday night. This is particularly bad news for the president, who needs support from Florida’s Jewish seniors to carry the key battleground state in 2012.
It is possible, although seems unlikely, that the issue will fizzle out by the end of the week. If it doesn’t, however, it looks like it will be another bad week for the embattled White House.
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