WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Europe are racing to avert or delay a looming showdown over Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this week that may kill already badly wounded Mideast peace hopes.
Senior U.S. and European officials will meet on Sunday in New York to try to find a formula that would bring Israel and the Palestinians back to stalled negotiations without antagonizing either side or embroiling the region in new turmoil. But with the parties locked in intractable positions over the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition and chances for a breakthrough slim, officials say the effort may be more about damage control than diplomacy.
Frustrated by their inability to win concessions from Israel, like a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Palestinians have seized this moment to try to gain greater standing and attention with a high stakes wager on statehood and U.N. membership that is vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States.
Twelve months after President Barack Obama said he wanted the U.N. to be welcoming Palestine as its newest member this year, talks have been broken down for almost as long and the U.S. is in the unenviable position of leading the opposition to something it actually supports.
With tensions high amid fears that a promised U.S. veto of the Palestinian bid at the U.N. Security Council could spark violence in the region, American officials were working around the clock to secure additional opposition to recognition, officials said. Without nine affirmative votes in the 15-member Council, the Palestinian resolution will fail and Washington is hoping it won't have to act alone. U.S. officials believe that six other Council members may vote against or abstain, meaning the Palestinians will fall short, but this could not be immediately confirmed.
Heading off or watering down the Palestinian resolution had been the goal of international diplomats who had hoped to parlay that success into a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at which negotiations would be relaunched. Yet the Palestinians have stuck to their guns, refusing to back down and give up the little leverage they appear to hold.
Still, even after the Palestinians lose at the Security Council on a U.S. veto or votes, they are expected to take their case for recognition to the U.N. General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support and the United States cannot kill it.
A nod from the General Assembly, could give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies like the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which the Israelis fear will then unfairly target them. This will further isolate Israel and the United States and deepen Israel's engrained mistrust of the United Nations.
Thus, the scramble for compromise continues with envoys from the international "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers -- the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and Russia -- gathering on Sunday followed by talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Despite having failed to convince the Palestinians to scale down their ambitions for full U.N. membership and recognition as a state, the Quartet is still seeking 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.
The best-case scenario would see the Quartet issue that statement that would then be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly or both and be followed by face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But officials said it is almost certainly too late to aspire to such an outcome next week.
The Palestinians have already rejected proposals from Quartet representative Tony 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 non-judicial 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.