Obama’s administration will veto any request by the Palestinians for the UN Security Council to grant them a sovereign state, but the White House hopes to avoid that step. Such a vote could set back Obama’s efforts to reset the U.S. relationship with the Arab world.
The president’s speech also comes at a critical time for Obama in terms of domestic politics. Obama is facing new doubts about whether he can win a second term, and the loss of a seemingly safe House seat in New York City last week, caused by the defection of conservative Jewish voters, has raised questions about the level of support Obama has with a traditional Democratic group of voters.
Obama entered office in 2009 promising to reset relations between the U.S. and the Arab world, and some of his actions have unsettled supporters of Israel.
A spring speech this year in which he said a peace settlement must be based on Israel’s 1967 borders set off a public battle between the White House and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Republicans are now looking to make inroads with Jewish voters.
White House and campaign officials have pushed back at suggestions that Obama has a real problem with Jewish voters. They argue the U.S. and Israel relationship has stayed strong under Obama’s watch.
“I think what you’ve seen time and again is the United States and Israel standing together and the United States supporting Israel in, in some instances, unprecedented ways,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s National Security Council spokesman, said Friday.
Rhodes said Obama will not use the speech to defend the long list of items administration officials say underscore the strong commitment the president has made to Israel.
“I don’t think he necessarily has to,” Rhodes said. “I think that it’s evident.”
Obama is expected to meet with Netanyahu at the UN. There are no current plans for Obama to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, but officials noted that could change in the dynamic flow of international conferences.
Republican critics of the administration have excoriated Obama for what they said was a lack of awareness and attention to the Security Council vote.
“Up until the past week or 10 days the administration has done precious little diplomatically to head off this Palestinian effort to get itself declared a state or admitted to the UN or whatever it is they turn out to do,” said former UN ambassador and Obama critic John Bolton.
Bolton said on a conference call Friday that the Obama administration left the impression it “is really not that opposed to what the Palestinians are trying to do.”
He also said other governments interpreted the U.S. “inaction as really an unwillingness to cause itself political trouble so they would be just as happy if the UN declared Palestine a state, then they wouldn’t have to take the lead on it.”
Administration officials rejected that criticism, noting that Obama sent two envoys to the region in recent weeks to try to head off the move.
The administration tried last week to get the Palestinian president to not move forward with the request, but that effort failed. So did an effort to keep the vote within the UN General Assembly instead of the Security Council.
To the extent that supporters of Israel accept Bolton’s arguments, however, it could hurt Obama further with at least some Jewish voters.
Still, the White House, Obama’s reelection campaign and a number of Democratic strategists downplayed the idea that Obama is really in trouble with Jewish voters.
They noted that the importance of the New York special election is overstated, particularly given low turnout.
Dan Gerstein, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said that while the speech is “an opportunity to stop the bleeding,” the reports of a problem between Obama and Jewish voters greatly exaggerate whatever divide exists.
“It’s made out to be much bigger than it actually is,” Gerstein said, joining the White House in noting the anemic turnout in the New York election. “It’s an irritant that they have to deal with right now.”