Facing a potentially destabilizing diplomatic clash, President Barack Obama heads to the United Nations next week already looking beyond a potential vote on Palestinian statehood and toward laying the groundwork for the resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks.
Obama had hoped to focus his efforts at the meetings of the U.N. General Assembly on boosting the standing of Libya's former rebel leaders and touting the United Nations' role in dismantling Moammar Gadhafi's regime. But success in Libya seems likely to be overshadowed by a Palestinian push for full U.N. membership _ an effort over which Obama has little influence.
White House officials say it's still unclear what course the Palestinians will take in New York next week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday that he will ask the U.N. Security Council to endorse his statehood bid, though he said he was open to other unspecified options. The U.S. has pledged to veto the statehood bid, and the Obama administration has senior diplomats in the region making a last-ditch effort to persuade the Palestinians to drop the measure.
But the White House insists its main focus is not on what happens at the U.N., but on resuming direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. U.S. officials contend that those negotiations provide the only credible pathway for the Palestinians to achieve statehood.
"Whatever happens at the United Nations, there's going to have to be a process to get these two parties back to the table when we get beyond next week," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday.
As part of the effort to revive the stalled negotiations, Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting next week. But whether Obama can make any progress in convincing Netanyahu to return to talks is highly uncertain, and it's unclear what bargaining power the U.S. has.
There are currently no plans for Obama to meet with Abbas in New York, and the White House said the two leaders had not spoken recently.
Thus far, there are also no plans for Netanyahu and Abbas to meet at the UN.
A U.S. official said envoys from the Middle East diplomatic Quartet _ the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia _ planned to meet in New York Sunday to discuss the pending Palestinian bid.
It's unlikely that the Quartet could take actions on its own that could stop the Palestinians from moving forward with a statehood bid, but the official said the U.S. is hopeful the group could issue a formal statement next week laying the groundwork for restarting direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
Obama is due to arrive in New York Monday evening, after giving a speech in the Washington area announcing his deficit cutting recommendations for a joint congressional committee.
The president's meetings at the U.N. kick into high gear on Tuesday with an emphasis on Libya, where opposition forces have unseated Gadhafi after four decades of rule.
Eager to burnish the credentials of Libya's new leadership, Obama will hold his first meeting with Mahmoud Jibril, prime minister of the Transitional National Council. He and other world leaders will also convene a high-level meeting on Libya where the TNC will outline its plans for a post-Gadhafi nation.
The White House sees next week's meetings as an opportunity to promote the U.N.'s role in the months-long Libya effort as a model for future interventions. In March, the Security Council swiftly passed a resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing all necessary action needed to protect civilians, a measure the U.S. credits with saving countless Libyan lives.
"The U.N. has a credible role to play in these issues, and the international community can prevent mass atrocities," Rhodes said.
On Friday, the U.N. voted to give Libya's seat in the world body to the former rebels.
Other key meetings on Obama's schedule at the U.N. include one-on-one talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, their first meeting since Obama outlined plans to withdraw more than 20,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer. And Obama will meet with the prime minister of Turkey, whose increasingly strained relationship with Israel is a growing concern for the U.S.
Obama also will meet with leaders from Britain, France, Brazil, Japan and South Sudan, the world's newest nation.
The president will address the General Assembly Wednesday morning and also speak at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative later that day.
Underscoring the ever-present tug of domestic politics, Obama is also expected to use his time in New York to attend fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee and his re-election campaign.
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC