President Obama failed Wednesday to talk Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas out of seeking full U.N. membership, setting the stage for a U.S. veto that could help shore up Obama's sagging domestic political standing but risk injecting the first serious anti-U.S. unrest into the turmoil racking the Middle East.
Plunging into frenzied, high-level diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, Obama spent about an hour Wednesday evening closeted with Abbas in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in what U.S. officials said was an attempt to persuade Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel that broke down last year.
But Abbas left the session still determined to submit a request Friday for a U.N. Security Council resolution granting full U.N. membership to an independent Palestinian state. Obama has repeatedly vowed to block the move by using the veto the United States controls as one of five permanent Security Council members.
Abbas "has been very clear about what his intent is, which is to go to the Security Council," Ben Rhodes, a White House National Security Council spokesman, told reporters after the Obama-Abbas meeting. Rhodes said that Obama told Abbas that the United States "would have to oppose any action at the U.N. Security Council including, if necessary, vetoing."
Husam Zomlot, a member of Abbas' delegation, told McClatchy Newspapers that the Palestinian request would go forward. "We expect a speedy process of our application," he said.
Under U.N. procedures, Abbas would present a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting recognition. Ban would pass the application to the Security Council. Palestinian officials have said that Lebanon, which currently holds the council presidency, has agreed to sponsor a resolution. It is uncertain, however, when a vote would be held.
Speaking earlier to world leaders gathered for the opening of the 66th U.N. General Assembly, Obama sought to win support for his position, saying that there could be no "shortcut" to peace and that an independent state of Palestine can only be established through a peace deal reached in direct negotiations.
"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.," Obama declared in a speech to a standing-room-only opening session of the General Assembly. "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. "Ultimately, it is the Israelis and Palestinians -- not us -- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem."
Obama didn't mention his pledge to use the U.S. veto, which the United States contends wouldn't change anything on the ground but would jeopardize chances of restarting the peace process.
A major theme of Obama's speech was the "transformation" of the Middle East set off by popular revolutions that ousted the dictators of Egypt and Tunisia, the Western-backed revolt that toppled Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and the nationwide uprising by millions that Syrian President Bashar Assad is struggling to crush by force.
"More nations have stepped forward to maintain international peace and security. And more individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and dignity," Obama said.
His words, however, were certain to ring hollow among the Palestinians and their backers around the world. They see U.S. support for Israel -- which Obama declared as "unshake-able" -- as underpinning the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to halt the construction of Jewish settlements on lands that the Palestinians claim for their future state.
By vetoing a resolution on Palestinian U.N. membership, Obama risks inflaming anti-American passions and possibly inciting violence in a region undergoing momentous changes triggered by the overthrow of U.S.-backed regimes that kept anti-American, anti-Israeli and Islamic extremist sentiments in check for decades.
A veto could help Obama domestically among Jewish voters, as he faces a tough re-election battle in 2012.