Palestinians hurtle towards UN showdown

AFP , Tuesday 20 Sep 2011

Palestinian leader, Mahmud Abbas, confirms that he will force a vote for statehood through the UN, in direct confrontation with US efforts to avoid it altogether

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has said he is determined to force a vote on UN membership for a Palestinian state this week, setting up a collision with the United States and Israel.

Abbas met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday to tell him he would go ahead with the controversial move on Friday despite mounting international pressure to put off the attempt.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in Middle East peace talks, the Palestinians are planning to grab the spotlight and launch their decades-old ambition for statehood to the top of the world agenda.

A senior Palestinian negotiator confirmed Abbas was seeking to push for a UN Security Council vote before he would consider other options, despite a frantic diplomatic scramble to head off the showdown.

"Politically he wants to try the Security Council first," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told reporters, adding that "afterwards all options are open."

The move is a direct challenge to the United States, which has already said it will use its veto if the Security Council votes on the issue.

If the Palestinians fail to win over nine of the 15 members, any resolution would fail, saving President Barack Obama from an embarrassing US veto, as he has repeatedly called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Yet another option could be for the full UN General Assembly to grant the Palestinians the enhanced observer status enjoyed by the Vatican.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged Abbas to hold direct talks in New York ahead of the showdown.

But the Palestinians appeared to be buoyed by support from some 120 nations which have already either bilaterally recognised the state of Palestine or said they would be in favour of such a move.

"We are looking for this week being a week that produces an outcome that we can use to reaffirm our cause and bring us closer to our date with freedom," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said.

But Abbas warned as he arrived in New York that "the Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after the Palestinian approach to the United Nations through the Security Council."

The United States was leading a major push to try to head off the UN confrontation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted to reporters that Washington is engaged in "extremely intensive" diplomacy behind closed doors.

"We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations," she said.

A US official said Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed "elements" of a statement to be drafted by the diplomatic Quartet, which also includes the European Union and the United Nations.

The pair "agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that helps establish a pathway back to negotiations," the official said on condition of anonymity.

In a sign of the spiraling tensions, US senators urged Obama to use his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday to restate strong US support for Israel amid tensions with Turkey and the Palestinian push for statehood.

"The world needs to hear unequivocally from you that Israel -- our friend, ally, and strategic partner -- is not alone in facing these threats," 14 lawmakers said in a letter released as Obama arrived in New York.

Obama, who has sought to relaunch the stymied peace talks, will meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday but has no plans yet to meet with Abbas.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned of the risk of an "explosion of violence" in the Middle East if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved, saying the status quo was "neither acceptable nor tenable."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet with Abbas on Tuesday, and European Union foreign ministers were also to try to break the impasse.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said donor nations meeting on Sunday had "concluded that the Palestinian institutions are now above the threshold for running a state," although he highlighted concerns about "the vulnerability of the economy due to the effects of the occupation."

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, the special envoy for the Quartet, is seeking a statement that would advance the Palestinians' aspirations for statehood while promoting negotiations.

"I think there is a way of avoiding a confrontation," he said Sunday.

Israel says the UN bid is a Palestinian attempt to circumvent direct negotiations, which ground to a halt in September 2010 after the end of an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied territories.

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