The Palestinians steered towards a clash with Washington over their UN statehood bid despite a stern warning from President Barack Obama that there was no “shortcut” to peace.
The hard-hitting speech by Obama and a personal meeting with Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday failed to sway the Palestinian leader from a vow to apply for membership on Friday, as diplomats struggled to avert the showdown.
However, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said any UN Security Council vote on the Palestinian bid would take weeks, giving diplomats time to work on proposals to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
And Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Abbas will give “some time to the Security Council to consider first our full membership request before heading to the General Assembly” to seek enhanced observer status.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy meanwhile launched his own bid to ease tensions by calling for the Palestinians to be granted UN observer state membership as a prelude to new talks.
The United States has vowed to veto any request for Palestinian statehood at the Security Council, potentially sparking a new Middle East crisis. Tens of thousands of Palestinians took part in rallies to back Abbas on Wednesday.
Both Israel and the United States insist that only direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can set up a peace deal that could lead to the creation of a new state.
“I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades,” Obama told the UN General Assembly.
He did not mention the US threat to veto the Security Council bid, but said: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Obama insisted Israelis and Palestinians must sit down to “reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.”
For Obama, the confrontation is an embarrassment as 12 months ago he stood before the same assembly and called for Palestinian membership in the United Nations within a year.
Obama said he believed then and now “that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own.” But he added Israel must have security guarantees because of the threat from “neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it.”
He later met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he deserved a “badge of honor” for his defense of the Jewish state. The meeting with Abbas brought no change in the position of either side, officials said.
Sarkozy told the General Assembly it was unrealistic for the Palestinians to expect immediate full UN membership. But he added that a US veto could risk setting off a “cycle of violence in the Middle East.”
He proposed UN observer state status for the Palestinians as an intermediate step toward full membership.
He also set out a timetable for new Israeli-Palestinian talks which said negotiations should resume within a month and there should be a definitive accord within a year.
The diplomatic Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — has been pressing for a virtually identical plan.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair — the Quartet’s special envoy — is trying to get the group’s members, as well as the Palestinians and Israelis, to agree on a statement to kick-start talks which have been frozen for the past 12 months, diplomats said.
The Palestinians have said that if there is a US veto at the Security Council, they will go to the UN General Assembly to seek an elevated observer status, similar to the one given to the Vatican.
If the Palestinian resolution does not get at least nine votes on the 15-member Security Council, the motion would fail and no veto would be necessary.
Five members — Brazil, China, Lebanon, Russia and South Africa — have expressed support for the move. Colombia has said it will abstain and the remaining members, except for the United States, are thus far undecided.
A General Assembly vote would only require a simple majority and could not be vetoed. Israel fears that even observer status would allow the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court and file complaints against it.
The proposal outlined by Sarkozy calls on the Palestinians not to go to the court while talks are being held.