WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Europe are racing to avert or delay a looming showdown over Palestinian statehood at the United Nations that may crush already dim Mideast peace prospects.
Senior U.S. and European officials, at meetings Sunday afternoon in New York, hoped to find a way of bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to stalled negotiations without antagonizing either side or embroiling the region in new turmoil.
But each is locked in intractable positions over the expected Palestinian bid this week for U.N. recognition and chances for a breakthrough seem slim. As a result, officials say the effort may be more about damage control than diplomacy.
The Palestinians are frustrated by their inability to win from Israel concessions such as a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They want to seize the moment to try to gain greater standing and attention with a high stakes wager on statehood and U.N. membership. The U.S. and Israel vehemently opposed this move.
Only 12 months ago, President Barack Obama said he wanted the U.N. to be welcoming Palestine as its newest member this year. But talks long have broken down, and the U.S. is in the unenviable position of leading the opposition to something it actually supports.
The U.S. has promised a veto of the Palestinian bid at the Security Council, leading to fears the action could spark violence in the region.
The American side was working to secure additional opposition to recognition, officials said. Without nine affirmative votes in the 15-member Council, the Palestinian resolution would fail and Washington is hoping it won't have to act alone.
U.S. officials believe that six other members may vote against or abstain, meaning the Palestinians would fall short. That tally could not be immediately confirmed.
Heading off or watering down the Palestinian resolution had been the goal of international diplomats. They hoped to parlay that success into a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders where the two sides would relaunch negotiations.
Yet the Palestinians have refused to back down and give up the little leverage they hope to win.
"The aim of this is try to elevate the Palestinians to a more equal footing so that this disparity that existed over the last 18 years, which allowed Israel to exploit it to its advantage, can end and they can talk now to an equal member state of the United Nations," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian's top representative to the U.S.
Areikat told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the Palestinians could accept an alternative, but it must include "clear terms of reference to return to the negotiations, clear time frame and an endgame."
Still, even with a loss in the Security Council, the Palestinians were expected to take their case for recognition to the General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support and the U.S. cannot block it.
The Israelis fear such courts would target them unfairly, which is something that Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said had been outlined by the Palestinians themselves.
They are "going to the U.N. to get this state not to make peace but to challenge Israel's legitimacy in international arenas and to try to undermine the peace process," he told CNN.
His comments reflected Israel's concern about further isolation and underscored the country's mistrust of the United Nations.
Envoys from the Quartet — the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia — were meeting Sunday, followed by talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Quartet envoy Tony Blair.
Those international negotiators have failed to persuade the Palestinians to scale down their ambitions for full U.N. membership and recognition as a state. But they were trying to craft a statement that could restart peace talks.
Such a statement would offer the Palestinians a modest upgrade in status, address Israel's demand that its identity as a Jewish state be upheld and lay out a broad timeline and parameters for renewed negotiations, officials said.
"What we will be looking for over the next few days, is a way of putting together something that allows (Palestinian) claims and legitimate aspirations for statehood to be recognized whilst actually renewing the only thing that's going to produce a state, which is a negotiation directly between the two sides," former British Prime Minister Blair told ABC's "This Week."
The Palestinians have rejected proposals put forth by Blair and seconded by U.S. envoys Dennis Ross and David Hale that would give the Palestinians the "attributes of a state," including membership in nonjudicial international organizations, without actual statehood.
"It is too late now," Abbas aide Nabil Shaath told The Associated Press. "The proposals (that) came to us ... are not good even as a starting point."
Given the stakes and entrenched positions, the best the U.S. and its allies may be able to achieve is a delay in action on the Palestinian bid.
Later Sunday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon are expected to attend a meeting at U.N. headquarters of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a donor support group for the Palestinians that is expected to discuss their economic prospects. It is chaired by Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere and includes top officials from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Quartet.
In reports prepared for the meeting, the IMF and the World Bank warned of increasing risks to the Palestinian economy that could undermine recent growth and achievements in building the institutions of a state.
The IMF reiterated its April assessment that the Palestinian Authority "is now able to conduct the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state, given its solid track record in reforms and institution-building in the public finance and financial areas."
But the IMF said economic growth in the West Bank declined from 8 percent in 2010 to 4 percent in the first half of 2011. It warned that declining aid to the Palestinians, especially from regional donors, has led to "a liquidity crisis" and said there is "an urgent need" for donors to fill a $300 million gap in the Palestinians' financial requirement of $1.1 billion this year.
The World Bank reported "substantial progress" in the Palestinians' two-year program to build strong state institutions. "However, the onset of an acute fiscal crisis, accompanied by declining economic growth, may undermine the promise of these institution-building achievements," it warned.
Associated Press writers Mohammad Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.