Mideast negotiations appear to remain elusive

September 22, 2011 - 10:00 AM
APTOPIX Obama UN

President Barack Obama addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.S. and European powers were pressuring for resumed Mideast negotiations on Thursday as part of an intensive international effort to curb a Palestinain statehood bid at the United Nations, expected the following day.

But there was no indication that either side was prepared to narrow the gaps that have prevented talks from going forward for the past year. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, said there was no talk about a settlement construction freeze. And there was no indication the Palestinians were willing to drop their demand that Israel first stop building on lands they want for a future state or base talks on lines Israel held before capturing those lands in 1967.

On Wednesday, Palestinian officials brushed aside a promised U.S. veto and pressure to abandon their bid for U.N. membership, saying they were determined to take their case to the Security Council and realize a goal unfulfilled by decades of negotiations.

Senior aides to President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians would not accept political delays in their membership bid, but acknowledged that final U.N. action might not be taken for months or even longer.

The issue was dominating the annual meeting ministerial meeting of the world body as the diplomatic world swirled with speculation about what deals might be in the works. The United States, insisting that Palestinian statehood depends first of peace with Israel, has vowed to veto the Palestinian measure should it win the needed nine of 15 Security Council votes.

Teams of envoys from the United States, the European Union and France were engaged in frenzied, last-minute efforts to persuade Abbas to return to the negotiating table and make do with something less than full U.N. membership. The U.S. and Israel were also pressuring council members to either vote against the plan or abstain when it comes up for a vote.

The Israeli prime minister, meanwhile, was scheduled to sit down with the leader of Security Council member Portugal later Thursday as part of a intensive international effort to stymie the Palestinian plan to ask the Council on Friday to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

A meeting with the leader of Gabon has been canceled at least twice since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the U.N. on Wednesday. Israeli officials have cited "scheduling issues" for the cancellations.

Obama and Abbas met for more than 45 minutes Wednesday evening. The White House wouldn't say whether Obama directly asked the Palestinian leader to abandon his plans to pursue full U.N. membership, saying only that he reiterated his opposition to the statehood bid and the U.S. intention to issue a veto.

So far there was no indication that Abbas was ready for compromise despite intense pressure, but his aides said they were not setting deadlines for the Security Council to consider the application. And they left the door open for a Plan-B request to the General Assembly for an upgrade of their current status as a permanent observer to a nonmember observer state.

That option is seen as the lesser of two evils by the U.S. and others seeking to steer them clear from the Security Council for now.

"This is an option that is open to us ... starting tomorrow, if we chose to do so, but President Abbas does not want anybody to suspect a lack of seriousness if we address the two councils at the same time," Palestinian negotiator and senior Abbas adviser Nabeel Shaath told reporters. "So he will give some time to the Security Council to consider first our full membership request before heading to the General Assembly."

"We do not have a time limit," said Shaath. Nevertheless, he said, "This is a moment of truth."

Saeb Erekat, another senior aide, echoed that sentiment, saying the pursuit of U.N. membership would not be slowed: "We will not allow any political maneuvering on this issue," he said

That persistence has put the Palestinians on a collision course with the United States and Israel. A frustrated President Barack Obama told world leaders during his Wednesday U.N. speech that "there are no shortcuts" to peace.

A year ago, Obama made a case for Palestinian statehood. But in his speech he did not mention key issues such as an end to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Palestinian demands that borders be drawn largely according to those that existed before the 1967 Mideast War.

"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations," Obama told delegates. "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

But the Palestinians refused to accept that the could not negotiate peace after winning U.N. recognition.

Shaath said that "20 years after Oslo, we're still occupied" by Israel, a reference to the Oslo Accords that were intended to serve as a framework for future negotiations.

"The kind of freakish control the Israelis impose on us is unbelievable," Shaath said, referring to restrictions on movement between the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza. Israel and the United States say Hamas is a terrorist organization.

The options, Shaath said, were either "full membership or near full membership."

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Steven R. Hurst and Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.