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September 16, 2011

President Barack Obama at the UN: Libya, Syria and Palestine-Israel

Efforts by Palestinian leaders to seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state are expected to overshadow next week's United Nations General Assembly -- with the Obama administration and the Israeli government condemning the move.

Though the administration is pressing Palestinian officials to drop the bid, President Barack Obama isn't scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- who has said he'll be in New York next Friday to deliver the call. Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- though no date has been announced.

White House officials said Friday that Obama -- who arrives in NY late Monday -- will meet Tuesday with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chair of Libya's Transitional National Council -- which the US views as the new legitimate government of Libya -- and attend a meeting on rebuilding Libya. He'll also meet with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

He's also meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and addressing the Assembly Wednesday. Aides say Obama will talk about winding down the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring that has led to emerging democracies in the Middle East -- and the US position that the Palestinians can only achieve statehood through negotiations with Israel.

"Our fundamental message is going to be, if you support Palestinian aspirations, and if you support a Palestinian state, that the way to accomplish that is through negotiation with Israel," spokesman Ben Rhodes said. "That’s the only way you’re going to reach an agreement on borders; that’s the only way you’re going to reach an agreement on issues related to security."

The Palestinians’ bid for recognition comes as Republicans suggest they have an opening to poach Jewish voters from Obama, who they say is viewed warily by some Jewish voters for taking a tough early stance against Israel's building of settlements in the West Bank.

Democrats on Tuesday lost former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s New York congressional seat in a rout that critics point to as evidence that Obama’s support among Jewish voters is wavering. A conservative group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group founded by the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol has put up billboards across New York accusing Obama of being weak on Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition predicts the special election in New York will have "huge implications for 2012 races in states with large Jewish communities, such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

Democrats say they hear the same refrain every four years -- that traditionally Democratic-leaning Jewish voters are instead tilting Republican – but they're still looking to shore up support among Jewish voters.

Rhodes said the speech "is an opportunity to reaffirm the actions that have been taken over the course of the last two and a half years. What you’ve seen, time and again, is the United States and Israel standing together, and the United States supporting Israel -- in some instances, unprecedented ways. 

"The security cooperation between the United States and Israel has never been stronger," he said. "I think if you look at the security ties, the U.S. efforts to counter de-legitimization of Israel, and, again, U.S. efforts to achieve a peace through negotiated settlement, we’ve got a very strong record of support for Israel that should be evident to anybody who shares our concern for the future security and prosperity of Israel."

 The White House also pointed reporters to an event earlier this week in which former Mossad director Efraim Halevy praised Obama for helping Israel last week secure the safe release of six Israelis trapped inside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

"The United States is not in a position the way it was many years ago in the Middle East, it has its problems, it has its considerations and rightly so," Halevy noted. "But I believe the leadership that the President of the United States showed on that night was a leadership of historic dimensions… I believe it is our duty as Israelis, as citizens of the free world, to say, not simply thank you President Obama, but also we respect you for the way and the manner in which you took this decision."

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish lawmaker who chairs the Democratic National Committee, said Jewish voters would remain an "important and consistent base vote for the Democratic party.

She said the party planned an "aggressive outreach effort" to tout Obama's record on Israel -- and other issues of interest to Jewish voters.

"When it comes to the issues that matter to Jewish voters, Republicans are wrong on almost all of them," she said. "In addition to that, we'll make sure the Jewish voters who go to polls with Israel as their priority, understand how strong the president's record is."

Jon Alterman, a senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested Obama's Israel policy hasn't been much different from George W. Bush's -- though his talk has been more pointed at times, to push the Israelis to negotiations.

Brian Gardner, senior vice president of Washington Research for the brokerage firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, acknowledged the loss was a "significant defeat" for Obama, but cautioned against reading too much into the results.

He noted there were indications that Jewish voters in New York were angry with Obama, but noted that Jewish voters in the district "tend to be more religious, Orthodox, and conservative than Jewish voters in Florida."

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