Diplomatic stand-off over Palestinian bid for statehood

Abbas appeals directly to UN tomorrow as US scrambles for allies to broker compromise. But after decades of Israeli intransigence, the Palestinians say: no more, it is time for a vote.

Thousands of Palestinians attend a demonstration in support the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition yesterday in the West Bank city of Ramallah. ABBAS MOMANI / AFP PHOTO
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NEW YORK // Sixty-three years after the Nakba, 44 years after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and 18 years after the signing of the Oslo peace accords, Palestinians are set to take their quest for statehood to a new level. Over the objections of Israel and the United States, they will appeal directly to the United Nations for membership.

Their bid for statehood more than six decades after they were displaced by Israel's creation has caused a flurry of diplomatic manoeuvres as the US scrambles to formulate a last-minute deal that would persuade Palestinians to avoid what western diplomats warn would be a divisive showdown tomorrow, when Mahmoud Abbas says he will submit the application.

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy last night called on the UN to admit Palestine as a non-member state, upgrading its status as simple observer but opposing a Palestinian bid for full membership.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly he told Israel not to "remain immobile" in the deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians. "I say this with deep friendship for the Israeli people. Listen to what the young people of the Arab springs are saying: 'Long live freedom!' They are not crying, 'Death to Israel'," Mr Sarkozy said.

"You cannot remain immobile while this wind of freedom and democracy blows across your region."

Mr Abbas was due to meet Barack Obama late last night. In his speech to the General Assembly yesterday, the US president again asserted that the only way to secure peace was through direct negotiations. The US is reportedly working on a compromise deal under which the Security Council would receive the request from Mr Abbas but not vote on it until after another round of direct negotiations.

Washington is also working to secure Europe's support in pressuring the Palestinians not to bring matters to a head.

France and Britain, both veto-wielding Security Council members, have cautioned the Palestinians that the UN move is "not a course of action that we recommend, because it will just lead to confrontation", in the words of William Hague, the British foreign secretary.

Whatever happens in New York, there will be no immediate change on the ground. A UN vote - if a vote takes place - is first and foremost a demonstration of the almost complete lack of faith even the normally amenable leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation has left in the celebrated US-mediated peace process: after two decades, it has brought the Palestinians neither peace nor a state.

With the US ready to cast a veto at the Security Council, Palestinians will at most achieve an upgrade to their current UN observer status. They would also be able to point to a high level of support in the 193-member General Assembly, should a vote be held there, and conversely, to the global isolation that Israel and the veto-wielding US face.

Palestinian officials say the decision to seek UN membership has become necessary in view of a peace process that has been deadlocked for years. In effect, said Maen Areikat, the PLO's ambassador to the US, the Palestinians are trying to "change the political dynamics".

Mr Areikat was careful to argue that the statehood bid is not incompatible with bilateral talks with Israel to find a two-state solution. On the contrary, he said in Washington last week, seeking UN recognition of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders is the only way to preserve a two-state solution that has been thrown into jeopardy by continued Israeli settlement building in occupied territory.

Israel, however, is adamantly opposed to a Palestinian gambit that Israeli officials say amounts to nothing more than a unilateral move that contravenes the Oslo Accords and undermines negotiations. Tel Aviv has already threatened punitive measures - including the withholding of customs revenue it collects on behalf of the PA and travel restrictions on Palestinian officials - should Palestinians proceed with the vote.

US officials, meanwhile, say the Palestinian bid could harm the peace process and that no vote at the UN can be a viable replacement for direct negotiations between the parties. For now, the US is engaged in "extremely intensive" diplomacy to prevent the vote from taking place, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on Monday.

However, western diplomats have their work cut out for them. Last week Washington dispatched two envoys to Ramallah with an offer for Mr Abbas, but the effort by David Hale and Dennis Ross rather proved the "last straw" that convinced Mr Abbas that the UN route was the correct one, according to Nabil Shaath, a senior PLO official.

In Washington, meanwhile, Mr Areikat brushed aside threats of Israeli retaliation as well as threats by members of the US Congress to cut US aid to the PA. Such measures, he said, would not "coerce us to make political positions that are not going to serve the interests of our people".

The status quo is simply no longer sustainable for Palestinians, said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister.

"To the Palestinians now, this is an existential issue," said Mr Muasher, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They feel that the two-state solution is either dying or is dead already. When it's the economy versus your existence, your existence comes first."

The key element, he added, is the issue of settlements. "The Israelis want to start negotiations while settlement activities continue, and that is, frankly, not reasonable any more," Mr Muasher said.

But the US has been down this road before and was unable to convince - and ultimately unwilling to adequately pressure - Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to freeze settlement construction in occupied territory. It is far from clear that, this time, Palestinians will accept anything less.

"This is a matter of national pride," Mr Areikat said last week.

How much pride may be seen on the Palestinian streets in the coming days and weeks. It is there that any real change will come "the day after the day after", according to Mr Muasher, who argued a third Palestinian intifada, inspired by the Arab Spring, could well erupt after a UN vote that would put the international community in a real bind.

"It is very difficult for the international community to tell Egyptians and Libyans and Syrians who are yearning for freedom that the international community supports them, but to tell Palestinians yearning for freedom that, 'It's complicated'."