Palestinians to seek UN membership
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead Tuesday with his diplomatic campaign to gain full U.N. membership, brushing aside heated Israeli objections and a promised U.S. veto as the issue of Palestinian statehood takes center stage with world leaders gathering for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session.
Abbas had meetings scheduled Tuesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, among leaders, as he sought to line up support ahead of his speech Friday to the General Assembly when the Palestinians vow to submit a letter formally requesting U.N. membership.
Envoys of the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — planned to meet again Tuesday in an effort to avert a divisive showdown over Palestinian statehood by crafting a way forward that would be enough to persuade the Palestinians to drop their bid and have enough caveats for Israel to get its support.
As the Palestinians edged closer to seeking statehood recognition from the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Abbas to meet with him in New York. The Israel leader said he wanted to resume peace talks, upping the pressure on Abbas and building on the frenzied diplomacy swirling around the Palestinians' bid.
Regardless, Abbas said he had not been swayed by what he called "tremendous pressure" to drop the bid for U.N. recognition and instead to resume peace talks with Israel. Senior aides to the Palestinian leader said Abbas was undaunted by threats of punitive measures.
"Abbas says to every one: it's enough, 20 years of negotiations are more than enough, the world should intervene and end the Israeli occupation as long as the USA can't," said Mohammed Ishtayeh, an Abbas aide.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, however, there was still time to find a solution to the diplomatic crisis.
Clinton told reporters in New York that the U.S. is talking with all sides to defuse the standoff, noting that there were still several days to seek a compromise before Abbas' speech.
She joined Netanyahu in calling for new talks and repeated the U.S. position that the only path to a separate state for Palestinians is through negotiations with Israel.
Nabil Shaath, senior aide to Abbas, told The Associated Press that the Palestinian leader informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during their meeting Monday that he would present him with a letter requesting full membership on Friday, ahead of Abbas' speech to the General Assembly.
Any candidate for U.N. membership must submit a letter to the secretary-general stating it is a "peace-loving" state and accepts the U.N. Charter. Ban is expected to examine the Palestinian letter and then send it to the 15-member U.N. Security Council, which must give its approval before a vote in the larger General Assembly.
Ishtayeh said the letter will state: "Palestine is a peace-loving state and has contributed to human civilization, that it has succeeded in building state institutions." It would also cite the need to consider the pre-1967 Mideast War borders as those of the Palestinian state, he said.
Although any submission by the Palestinians could wait weeks or months for U.N. action, it has sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity with Mideast mediators scrambling to find a way to draw the sides back to the negotiating table.
Shaath said last ditch efforts to dissuade the Palestinian president from approaching the Security Council had failed. He said Palestinians had been threatened with harsh punitive measures but had decided to move ahead nonetheless.
The comment appeared to refer to the warnings by some in the U.S. Congress that current and future financial aid to the Palestinian Authority could be in jeopardy if they move ahead with the membership bid. The U.S. gives some $500 million a year in aid to the Palestinians.
Israel has not said how it will respond to a Palestinian declaration of independence, though hardliners in Netanyahu's government have called for a variety of measures, including annexing parts or all of the West Bank or withholding tax funds that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians are violating "the spirit and the word of signed commitments" that pledged to resolve disagreements through negotiations. "Israel reserves the right to respond," he said Tuesday, refusing to elaborate.
Each side in on-again-off-again Israeli-Palestinian talks has accused the other of being an untrustworthy and intransigent participant in the peace process.
In a statement issued late Monday, Netanyahu called on Abbas to begin "direct negotiations in New York and continue them in Jerusalem and Ramallah." It provided no other details or indications that Netanyahu was willing to cede to any of the Palestinians' demands.
Ban "reiterated his support for the two-state solution and stressed his desire to ensure that the international community and the two parties can find a way forward for resuming negotiations within a legitimate and balanced framework," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said after the secretary-general met with Abbas.
The comment underscored the desires of some members of the Quartet of Mideast mediators that Palestinian statehood should not be granted before a resumption of peace talks. While the four international mediators have repeatedly called for renewed negotiations, Russia supports U.N. membership for Palestine.
The long-stalled negotiations have been unable to solve key issues including Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the status of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.
Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed at a Monday night meeting that the Quartet envoys should meet again for the third straight day on Tuesday, officials said.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic work, said progress was being made on a joint Quartet statement that would include a modest upgrade to Palestinian status at the U.N., address Israel's demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state, and set a broad timeline for renewed negotiations.
The timeframe wouldn't be a deadline, as such, but would be aimed at addressing the Palestinian desire to see quick action. The offer would come with an unchanged message that Washington would veto the Palestinian bid at the Security Council for U.N. membership, but at the very least it would represent a dignity-saving compromise for Abbas' U.S.-backed government.
By already promising a veto in the Security Council, the U.S. has blocked that course for the Palestinians before they even submit the request.
Alternatively, the Palestinians could seek the approval of a majority of the General Assembly's 193 member states to upgrade their status from a permanent observer to a nonmember observer state — a designation that would leave them with a symbolic victory despite years of failed negotiations and waning hopes for statehood.
In either scenario, the Palestinians will have shown they have the power to force action on the issue at a time when Israel is feeling increasingly isolated in the region.
Associated Press writers Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper in New York, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Julie Pace in Washington, D.C., contributed reporting.