Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has set a collision course with Israel and the United States, determined to try to force a vote on his bid for full UN membership for a Palestinian state.
Flying in the face of strong opposition, Abbas met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday to tell him he would go ahead with the controversial move on Friday despite mounting international pressure to put off the attempt.
Frustrated by the lack of progress in Middle East peace talks, the Palestinians are planning to lift the issue to the top of the world agenda, aiming to grab the spotlight for their decades-old ambition for statehood.
A senior Palestinian negotiator confirmed Abbas was seeking to push for a UN Security Council vote before he would consider other options, despite a frantic diplomatic scramble to head off the bitter showdown.
“Politically he wants to try the Security Council first,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told reporters, adding that “afterwards all options are open.”
The move is a direct challenge to the United States, which has already said it will impose its veto if the Security Council votes on the issue.
If the Palestinians do not secure nine votes from the 15 members, any resolution would fail and the US veto would not be necessary, saving President Barack Obama some embarrassment as he has repeatedly called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Yet another option could be for the full UN General Assembly to grant the Palestinians an enhanced observer status as enjoyed by the Vatican.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday urged Abbas to hold direct talks in New York ahead of the showdown.
But the Palestinians appeared to be buoyed by support they have received from some 120 nations which have already either bilaterally recognized the state of Palestine or said they would be in favor of such a move.
“We are looking for this week being a week that produces an outcome that we can use to reaffirm our cause and bring us closer to our date with freedom,” Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said.
But Abbas warned as he arrived in New York “the Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after the Palestinian approach to the United Nations through the Security Council.”
The United States was leading a major push to try to head off the UN confrontation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted to reporters that Washington is engaged in “extremely intensive” diplomacy behind closed doors to resolve the showdown.
“We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations,” she said.
The United States and Russia sought to find a path back to Israel-Palestinian peace talks and avert a showdown over a Palestinian bid for UN membership as a state, a senior US official said.
Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed “elements” of a statement to be drafted by the Quartet of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, the official said.
The pair “agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that helps establish a pathway back to negotiations over time,” he told reporters on condition of anonymity.
In a sign of the spiraling tensions, US senators also urged Obama to use his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday to restate strong US support for Israel amid tensions with Turkey and the Palestinian push for statehood.
“The world needs to hear unequivocally from you that Israel — our friend, ally, and strategic partner — is not alone in facing these threats,” 14 lawmakers said in a letter released as Obama arrived in New York.
Obama, who has sought to relaunch the stymied peace talks, will meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday, the White House confirmed. But no talks were yet scheduled with Abbas, national security advisor Ben Rhodes said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned of the risk of an “explosion of violence” in the Middle East if the Palestinian conflict is not resolved, saying the Palestinian status quo was “neither acceptable nor tenable.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet with Abbas on Tuesday, and European Union foreign ministers were also to try to break the impasse.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said donor nations meeting on Sunday had “concluded that the Palestinian institutions are now above the threshold for running a state” although he highlighted concerns about “the vulnerability of the economy due to the effects of the occupation on the ground.”
Former British prime minister, Tony Blair, the special envoy for the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East — comprising United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — is seeking a statement that would advance the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood while promoting negotiations.
“I think there is a way of avoiding a confrontation,” he said Sunday.
Israel says the UN bid is a Palestinian attempt to circumvent direct negotiations, which ground to a halt in September 2010 after Israel ended a moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied territories.