RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian request to have the U.N. Security Council condemn Israeli settlements looks at first like another declarative gambit that changes little on the ground.
But much more is at stake.
Palestinians hope their Security Council initiative will give them an idea of how much support they have for future moves. These include seeking international recognition of a Palestinian state as early as this fall.
The Palestinian assumption is that talks with Israel will not produce a peace accord. The talks stalled just weeks after restarting last September, in a dispute over Israeli construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem.
In turning to the Security Council, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also defied President Barack Obama and risked offending the United States, the Palestinians' most crucial ally in their quest for statehood.
In exchange, the Palestinians hope a Security Council vote will put more pressure on Israel and isolate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu diplomatically.
"This is part of the strategy, we are going to do it whether the Americans like it or not," said Nabil Shaath, an Abbas aide.
It's not clear when the resolution would be put to a vote. Council members might hold off until after the main Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., Europe and Russia — meet in Germany in early February to talk about the Mideast quagmire.
One U.N. diplomat expressed hope that meeting could come up with some formula that breaks new ground in a way which will show the Palestinians that "there is life in the process."
U.S. officials, who urged the Palestinians not to turn to the Security Council, argue that Israelis and Palestinians should settle their disputes directly instead of taking it to the world body.
"We're working to keep the focus where we think it needs to be and that is not in New York," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that in going to the Security Council, the Palestinian leadership violated its promise to deal with all disputes in direct negotiations. "This sort of action will in no way contribute to peace and reconciliation," he said.
The Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations until Netanyahu halts construction of homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek for their state. Israel, which has moved nearly half a million Israelis to these areas, has refused to extend a 10-month building slowdown that ended in the fall.
A Palestinian official said Thursday that they were especially frustrated that Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, during a visit to Washington last week, failed to get the Americans to declare the pre-1967 borders with minor adjustments to be the basis for a deal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.
On Wednesday, Lebanon submitted a proposed anti-settlement resolution to the 15-member Security Council on behalf of the Palestinians, with another 122 countries as co-sponsors. The United States, one of five permanent members of the council with veto powers, has not said how it would vote, but signaled its displeasure with the move.
Palestinian officials said Thursday they did not see how the U.S. could possibly block the resolution, arguing that it largely reflects U.S. positions. The draft resolution says that Israeli settlements on war-won land are illegal and pose a major obstacle to peace. It demands that Israel halt construction immediately and urged Israelis and Palestinians to continue negotiations on a final peace deal.
"It would look ridiculous to veto a resolution worded in American diction," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestinian leadership.
Palestinian officials said they are confident they will get at least 14 votes if a vote is held. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who met with Abbas in the West Bank on Tuesday, assured the Palestinian leader his country would vote for the resolution, Erekat said. Russia is also a permanent member of the council, along with France, China and Britain.
Among the more than 100 co-signers of the draft resolution were Arab, Islamic, African, Asian and nonaligned countries that have traditionally supported the Palestinians. That list — from Afghanistan, Albania and Algeria to Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe — is roughly the same as that of countries that have already recognized Palestinian independence in some form.
U.S. officials acknowledge that a vote on the resolution will put them in a difficult spot but are warning the Palestinians that the move may backfire, urging them and members of the Security Council to put the effort on indefinite hold. They refuse to say if administration would veto the resolution.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing diplomacy, noted that some draft Security Council resolutions have languished for years without being put to a vote.
Palestinian officials have said going to the Security Council over settlements is the first of several steps, part of a strategy in parallel with the bogged down negotiations with Israel. Other elements include building the institutions of the state from the ground up and lobbying additional countries to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — the coastal strip now ruled by the Hamas militant group.
The unofficial target date for decisive Palestinian action on seeking world recognition would be September, the U.S.-stipulated deadline for the outlines of a peace deal.
Some suggest that a big push could come as world leaders gather at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Palestinian political activist Mustafa Barghouti said he viewed the resolution as a test run for a push for worldwide recognition of a Palestinian state with Israeli agreement, which he said was "one of several steps that will follow if nothing changes."
In Israel, there is increasing concern about the Palestinian plans.
"The world is gradually becoming accustomed to the idea that Palestine will join the family of nations this summer," wrote columnist Aluf Benn in the Haaretz daily. "This time, the Palestinians have prepared international support in advance."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.