Palestinians get Arab League boost for UN drive

July 14, 2011 - 2:29 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinians gather outside a smuggling tunnel following an overnight Israeli airstrike on the site in Rafah, on the border between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 14, 2011. Five people were injured and two people are missing due to the attack, a Palestinian official said. (AP Photo /Eyad Baba)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Arab League on Thursday endorsed a Palestinian plan to seek full membership at the United Nations this fall, setting up a likely confrontation with the United States in the powerful U.N. Security Council.

Negotiations with Israel on the terms of Palestinian statehood have been frozen since 2008. As an alternative, the Palestinians have decided to seek U.N. recognition of an independent "Palestine" in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Arab League foreign ministers, meeting Thursday in Doha, Qatar, said they would support the Palestinian bid.

The ministers pledged in a statement to "take all necessary measures and to rally needed support of all world countries, starting with members of the Security Council, to recognize the state of Palestine ... and to win full membership of the United Nations."

"Comprehensive and just peace with Israel will not be accomplished unless Israel withdraws from all occupied Arab territories," it said.

There was no immediate official reaction from Israel or the United States to the decision. However, the United States, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, has strongly hinted it would veto a Palestinian membership request. A U.S. veto would derail a quest for full U.N. recognition.

As an alternative, the Palestinians could go to the General Assembly and seek recognition there as a non-member observer state, a largely symbolic nod. Still, widespread support in the General Assembly would signal that a majority of countries support Palestinian statehood in the pre-1967 lines.

After Thursday's announcement, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians would appeal to both bodies, beginning with the council. "We hope the United States will not use its veto against this decision," he said.

Speaking from Doha, Erekat said the Arab ministers decided to form two committees — one to work on procedural matters and the second to rally international support for the Palestinians.

Taking on the U.S. is potentially risky for the Palestinians, since Washington is the main Mideast mediator. Already, there is a move in Congress to cut off funds millions of dollars in aid if an emerging Palestinian unity government includes the militant Hamas group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the West.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects a full withdrawal from the occupied lands, where some 500,000 Israelis have settled since 1967, including 300,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in Israel-annexed east Jerusalem. Netanyahu says Israel will never relinquish east Jerusalem, which he considers an integral part of its capital. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control its borders, sea and air space.

Palestinian officials acknowledge a victory at the U.N. would not immediately change the situation on the ground, but they believe a strong international endorsement would step up pressure on Israel to withdraw from occupied territory.

Israel and the United States say a Palestinian state should be formed through a peace deal with Israel.

The latest significant round of peace talks broke down in late 2008. At the time, Netanyahu's predecessor and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed on the principle of swapping some West Bank land for Israeli territory, in order to enable Israel to retain some major Jewish settlements. However, the leaders were far apart on the extent of such a swap, and other key disputes, including the fate of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks unless Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and accepts the pre-1967 lines as the basis of a peace deal. Israel says issues like settlements and borders should be on the negotiating table.

Israel's Channel 10 TV reported late Thursday that Netanyahu approved a plan to build 210 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a response to a grisly attack in March when a Palestinian stabbed to death a couple and three of their children, including a baby. The report said Defense Minister Ehud Barak would need to approve the plan.

Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment.

Extremist settlers in Itamar frequently clash with Palestinians in nearby villages. The expansion of settlements deep inside the West Bank, such as Itamar, would pose a particular obstacle to eventual partition of the land.