High-stakes diplomacy over Palestinian UN bid

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In this Dec. 14, 2007 file photo, a Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during a demonstration against Israel’s separation barrier at the village of Bilin, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NEW YORK — The United States and Europe raced Sunday to avert or delay a looming United Nations showdown over Palestinian statehood that could crush already dim Mideast peace prospects, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the European Union’s top diplomat meeting in an attempt to come up with a winning strategy.

Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed the situation in New York as part of an increasingly desperate effort to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations without antagonizing either side or embroiling the region in new turmoil.

But with each side locked in intractable positions over the expected Palestinian bid this week for U.N. recognition, chances for a breakthrough seemed slim. Officials said the effort may be more about damage control than diplomacy.

The Palestinians are frustrated by their inability to win from Israel concessions such as a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They want to seize the moment to try to gain greater standing and attention with a high stakes wager on statehood and U.N. membership. The U.S. and Israel vehemently opposed this move.

Only 12 months ago, President Barack Obama said he wanted the U.N. to be welcoming Palestine as its newest member this year. But talks long have broken down, and the U.S. is in the unenviable position of leading the opposition to something it actually supports.

The U.S. has promised a veto of the Palestinian bid at the Security Council, leading to fears the action could spark violence in the region.

The American side was working to secure additional opposition to recognition, officials said. Without nine affirmative votes in the 15-member Council, the Palestinian resolution would fail and Washington is hoping it won’t have to act alone.

U.S. officials believe that six other members may vote against or abstain, meaning the Palestinians would fall short. That tally could not be immediately confirmed.

Heading off or watering down the Palestinian resolution had been the goal of international diplomats. They hoped to parlay that success into a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders where the two sides would re-launch negotiations.

Yet the Palestinians have refused to back down and give up the little leverage they hope to win.

“The aim of this is try to elevate the Palestinians to a more equal footing so that this disparity that existed over the last 18 years, which allowed Israel to exploit it to its advantage, can end and they can talk now to an equal member state of the United Nations,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian’s top representative to the U.S.

Still, even with a loss in the Security Council, the Palestinians were expected to take their case for recognition to the General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support and the U.S. cannot block it.

A nod from the General Assembly could give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

The Israelis fear such courts would target them unfairly, which is something that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said had been outlined by the Palestinians themselves.

They are “going to the U.N. to get this state not to make peace but to challenge Israel’s legitimacy in international arenas and to try to undermine the peace process,” he told CNN.

His comments reflected Israel’s concern about further isolation and underscored the country’s mistrust of the United Nations .

Those international negotiators have failed to persuade the Palestinians to scale down their ambitions for full U.N. membership and recognition as a state. But they were trying to craft a statement that could restart peace talks.