Palestinians grapple with opposition to UN plan

June 9, 2011 - 1:15 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians Hamas Future

FILE- In this March 18, 2007 file photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, left, speak as they head the first cabinet meeting of the new coalition government at Abbas' office, in Gaza City. After four years of turbulent rule in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas is weighing a new strategy of not directly participating in future governments even if it wins elections, an approach aimed at avoiding isolation by the world community and allowing for continued economic aid. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Faced with opposition from the United States, a number of top Palestinian officials are quietly advising President Mahmoud Abbas to drop plans to seek recognition for a state of Palestine at the United Nations this fall.

Top officials say Abbas remains committed to his plan — a result of the widespread sense among Palestinians that two decades of on-and-off negotiations with Israel have run their course, and that the current Israeli leadership is not a partner for peace.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press Thursday, said Abbas would like to "climb down from the tree" and find a mutually acceptable formula for restarting negotiations, preferably based on ideas presented by President Barack Obama recently.

At the same time, there is a widespread sense that Abbas, having advertised his intentions so prominently, has left himself with little room to maneuver and may proceed with the UN gambit simply to avoid a loss of credibility.

"We are trapped with September," said one official. "We don't know what to do after that."

The misgivings reflect a growing realization that the project is problematic and promises a messy and unclear outcome that could change little on the ground — and might backfire politically or even spark new violence if Palestinians emerge disappointed with the result.

That was underscored this week when U.S. officials told a visiting Palestinian delegation that seeking U.N. recognition in the absence of a peace deal was a "nonstarter" — the latest indication that the U.S. would veto a resolution at the Security Council.

"There are no clear Palestinian options," said Hani Masri, an analyst who is in close contact with Abbas' inner circle. "Abbas will definitely go to the U.N. to preserve his credibility. But if there is any other chance of getting back to the negotiations, he will do that."

The Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body, is charged with recommending membership for new states in the world body — a required step in the process. The U.S., as one of five permanent members, has veto power over council decisions.

The Palestinians have been exploring alternatives, such as asking the General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support, for recognition of some other kind.

The assembly's decisions are not legally binding, and it has become increasingly clear that approval would amount to little more than a symbolic victory. Late last month, the assembly's president, Swiss politician Joseph Deiss, said there is no way a Palestinian state could become a U.N. member without a recommendation from the Security Council.

The Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive deliberations, say a number of top advisers are now having second thoughts about the U.N. strategy.

They said that among them are Yasser Abed Rabbo, the No. 2 official after Abbas in the Palestine Liberation Organization; Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat; and Nasser al-Qidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the U.N. and top Abbas confidante.

All three declined comment.

Earlier this week, al-Qidwa acknowledged the limits of Abbas' strategy in a closed gathering of prominent Palestinian intellectuals.

Al-Qidwa said the Palestinians should still try to rally support for their cause at the U.N. "But we should distinguish between getting support and getting recognition. We cannot get recognition simply because the U.S. will veto it," he said, according to a transcript obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.N. option has been a centerpiece of Abbas' foreign policy since a short-lived round of peace talks collapsed last September after an Israeli slowdown on settlement construction expired.

The Palestinians have demanded a renewed settlement construction freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel counters that the Palestinians have never laid down such a condition before, and the issue of settlements should be discussed in negotiations.

The Palestinians want the U.N. to endorse an independent state within the pre-1967 lines.

While such a vote would have little immediate effect on the ground, the Palestinians believe it would send a strong message to Israel to withdraw. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejects a return to the pre-1967 lines.

Both Obama and France have recently offered similar formulas for restarting talks, suggesting that future borders be based on the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed-upon modifications.

The Palestinians have embraced both proposals. Masri, the analyst, said he believes they are even ready to drop their long-standing demand for a full settlement freeze in return for Obama's formula. Israel, however, has reacted coolly.

Top Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were in Washington this week, meeting separately with U.S. officials in search of ways to resume negotiations. There was no word on any breakthrough.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki, Abbas' point man on the U.N. preparations, said the Palestinians "are determined" to seek U.N. membership in September "unless negotiations resume based on Obama's parameters."