WASHINGTON — Stuck in a diplomatic bind, the Obama administration scrambled Thursday to avert a difficult U.N. Security Council vote on a Palestinian-backed resolution condemning Israeli settlements. President Barack Obama raised the subject in a call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after other attempts to sway him failed.
Though Israel's closest ally, the United States has nonetheless opposed new settlements, saying they are an impediment to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the U.S. also does not want the Security Council taking up the issue, arguing it would complicate peace negotiations.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Security Council vote planned for Friday would be counterproductive as the United States focuses on advancing talks that will lead to a two-state solution.
"We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council and resolutions that would come before the Security Council are not the right vehicle to advance that goal," she said at a news conference after a briefing with senators.
The vote places the Obama administration in a predicament. A U.S. veto would place Obama at odds with the Palestinians and its supporters in the Arab world; abstaining from the vote would anger Israelis. The issue also places Obama in a political fix at home where he already faced criticism for trying to avoid a veto from Democratic and Republican supporters of Israel in Congress.
On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, proposed a weaker Security Council presidential statement instead of a legally binding resolution, a step that represented a shift from the long-held U.S. view that the Security Council is not the proper forum to address the issue of Israeli settlements. Palestinians rejected the offer.
Palestinians object to settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying it is the primary obstacle to resuming peace talks with Israel. The resolution declares that those settlements "are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."
The administration, however, has declined to describe the settlements as "illegal," preferring "illegitimate" instead.
"We, like every administration for decades, do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. "We believe that continued expansion is corrosive not only to peace efforts and a two-state solution, which we strongly support, but to Israel's future itself."
Carney said the best path toward peace was direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the Obama administration to simply veto the resolution on settlements.
"By demonstrating consistency and resolve in support of our ally Israel, the administration will strengthen U.S. credibility abroad," he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the Republican chairwoman of the committee, said any compromise statement supported by the United States would be a "major concession to enemies of the Jewish state."
"It telegraphs that the U.S. can be bullied into abandoning critical democratic allies and core U.S. principles," she said.
At the White House, Carney said he would not speculate on what action the administration planned to take and declined to discuss ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
Abbas and Obama spoke by telephone for 50 minutes on Thursday, according to Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Aburdeneh. He said they discussed the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and the proposed resolution in the U.N. Security Council.
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