Washington is desperately trying to head off a United Nations resolution condemning Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the disputed West Bank territories that is presenting Barack Obama with one of the most acute dilemmas of his presidency.
Senior Palestinian officials said on Monday they were undeterred by American appeals to abandon the resolution, which has been circulated among the 15 members of the UN Security Council and could be discussed as early as Wednesday at a meeting on the Middle East.
In recent weeks, the Palestinians have prepared a draft that would declare all settlements illegal and demand an immediate halt to their construction. The appeal to the Security Council is part of a Palestinian strategy to exert pressure on the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. US-brokered talks between the two sides collapsed recently when he refused to extend a partial ban on settlement-building.
The US, which has frequently wielded its veto at the Security Council in support of Israel, finds itself isolated in its opposition to the resolution, which would probably be supported by all other 14 members of the Security Council, including Britain and the other permanent members.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said recently: “We continue to believe strongly that New York is not the place to resolve the long-standing conflict and outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We do not think that that is a productive path for the Palestinians or anyone to pursue.”
Compromises are being explored, which could include referring to settlements as “illegitimate” rather than “illegal” and would allow the US to abstain. However an abstention could still be seen as hostile towards Israel.
Robert Danin, formerly deputy to Tony Blair at the international Quartet on the Middle East now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “This is extremely awkward for the US. President Obama may have to use the veto for the first time on something that he agrees with the substance of. It is somewhat ironic.”
Early in his presidency Mr Obama demanded that the Israelis stop building settlements, describing them as an obstacle to peace, only for Mr Netanyahu largely to stand his ground.
But the US president does not want to undermine Israel, which relies on US support, while failing to veto the resolution would lead to accusations of betrayal and weakness from Republicans. Jimmy Carter was the last US president to support a resolution against settlements, in 1980, and is thought to have paid a political price.
Every US president since has used the veto against similar resolutions, but Mr Obama has presented himself as a multilateralist and friend of the Arab world.
“President Obama doesn’t want to be seen as a unilateralist and a global bully. A veto would be an exertion of American power in a way that goes against the image of the US that the president wants to project,” said Mr Danin.
A spokesman for the Palestinian delegation to the UN said: “Our goal is not to put anyone in a difficult position. We want everybody on board especially on the issue of settlements on which we have a unified international position that it’s illegal and an obstacle to peace.”
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