RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian president is moving forward with his plan to seek upgraded observer status at the United Nations next month, despite American and Israeli threats of financial or diplomatic retaliation, officials said Sunday.
The decision sets the stage for a new showdown between Israel and the Palestinians at the world body, following last year's attempt by the Palestinians to seek status as a full member state. Although that initiative failed to pass the U.N. Security Council, it caused months of diplomatic tensions with Israel.
"We will go to the U.N. regardless of any threats," said Tawfik Tirawi, a senior member of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. "I expect the Israelis to take punitive measures against us, if we win this status, but this is our choice and we will not retract it."
This year, the Palestinians are seeking "nonmember state" status in the U.N. General Assembly, where passage is assured. The 193-member assembly is dominated by developing nations sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Officials say they are looking for what they call a "quality" majority that includes European countries as well, though Germany and Britain, for instance, have been cool to the Palestinian plan.
While upgraded status would not change the situation on the ground, the Palestinians say the move is still significant. They will ask for international recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
They believe the U.N. vote would then require Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines or face international legal action. Israel rejects a full return to those lines, and says the borders between Israel and a future Palestine must be reached through direct negotiations.
The Palestinians also hope to use upgraded status to join additional U.N. bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, where they could attempt to prosecute Israel on war crimes violations. The Palestinians last year received membership into UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency. Over Israeli objections, they subsequently won recognition of the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as an endangered heritage site.
A Palestinian official said Abbas is expected to formally put his request to the General Assembly on Nov. 15 or Nov. 29.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no formal decision has been made.
Both dates are symbolic. The 15th is the anniversary of the 1988 Palestinian declaration of independence. The 29th is the anniversary of the 1947 U.N. decision to partition of what was then British-ruled Palestine into Israeli and Arab territories. Jewish leaders agreed, but Arabs rejected the plan, war erupted, and the Palestinians remain without a state. The U.N. now observes Nov. 29 as its annual day of solidarity with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians last year decided to turn to the U.N. after years of deadlock in peace efforts with Israel. Negotiations have been frozen since late 2008, in large part over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say they will not resume talks without a settlement freeze.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a partial settlement freeze in 2009, but he refused to extend the slowdown when it expired, and a short-lived round of peace talks collapsed just weeks after they were launched.
Abbas has said he will be ready to resume talks after the U.N. vote, perhaps even without a settlement freeze.
While Netanyahu has in the past said he is ready to talk without preconditions, he has not said how he would react to a U.N. vote.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel has not yet decided how to respond, but he warned that U.N. recognition would "irreversibly poison the atmosphere" and make it impossible to resume peace talks.
"The Palestinians are openly declaring their intention to use this recognition as a weapon in an ever continuing diplomatic war they intend to wage against Israel," he said. "If they are going to wage a legal and diplomatic war against Israel, what are the odds of returning to the negotiating table?"
Last year, Israel withheld millions of dollars in tax transfers to the Palestinians after their attempt to win full membership. That gambit was opposed by the United States, which threatened to use its veto power in the Security Council to block the bid.
The U.S. has not publicly said how it will respond this time, though Palestinian officials say Washington has also threatened to cut off vital financial aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.