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Palestinian search for U.N. membership puts U.S. in bind

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders will ask the U.N. Security Council for full United Nations membership, Palestinian officials said Tuesday, despite a U.S. vow to veto the move and fears that it could deal a fatal blow to the moribund peace process.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas scheduled a formal announcement for Friday night even as two senior U.S. envoys prepared to return to the region to mount a last-ditch effort to revive Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which have been stalled for nearly a year.

European Union officials, meanwhile, pursued their own effort to prevent a new crisis in the restive region, struggling to draft a compromise U.N. resolution that could meet Palestinian and Israeli positions.

But a U.S.-based European diplomat, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, admitted that EU members were deeply divided. He said that reaching a deal before the new U.N. General Assembly opens next week was "a long shot."

"There will be a U.S. veto and then we enter unchartered waters," he said.

Ending months of speculation, Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the United States, said that Abbas would ask the Security Council next week to pass a resolution upgrading the PLO to "non-member observer state" status.

"We want to seek full membership ... and seek a resolution in the Security Council," he told reporters in Washington, adding that Lebanon, the current council president, has agreed to sponsor the resolution "on our behalf."

Non-member observer status is the lowest level of full U.N. membership. It would confer on the PLO, which runs the Palestinian Authority, the same standing as the Vatican, giving it a seat in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly and access to international institutions like the International Criminal Court. The PLO is currently a U.N. observer without voting rights.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior official of Fatah, the largest faction in the PLO, was quoted by the Al Jazeera satellite network as also announcing, "We are going to the Security Council."

"We are going to seek full membership based on the 1967 borders," he told a news conference in the West Bank administrative center of Ramallah, referring to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The move is fiercely opposed by Israel, which denounces it as an attack on its legitimacy and a "unilateral step" tantamount to seeking recognition of Palestinian statehood in violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which call for a negotiated settlement.

"Peace will be achieved only through direct negotiations and not through unilateral moves," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli officials have threatened unspecified retaliation for any Palestinian attempt to seek full U.N. membership. The measures could include the withholding from the Palestinian Authority of tax revenues that Israel collects for the Palestinians and accelerated construction of Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, experts said.

President Barack Obama and his top aides for weeks have asserted that the United States, one of five veto-wielding permanent Security Council members, would block such a resolution. They contend that approval of the resolution would undermine U.S.-led efforts to revive direct talks on establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries with agreed swaps of land.

"The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties and the route to that lies in Jerusalem and Ramallah, not in New York," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington on Tuesday. "Our hope is that we get the parties back into a frame of mind and a process where they will actually begin negotiating again."

U.S. officials announced that David Hale, the special U.S. Middle East envoy, and Dennis Ross, a senior White House adviser, would leave for the region on Tuesday evening to try to head off the Palestinian move only a week after returning to Washington empty-handed from a similar mission.

"We want to leave no stone unturned in our effort to get these parties back to the table. So we think another trip is warranted," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Hale and Ross would be meeting Netanyahu and Abbas, she said.

Some members of the House of Representatives are threatening to withhold U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks U.N. membership.

Palestinian officials, however, said that they have become frustrated by what they contended has been the Netanyahu government's refusal to end the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and by the U.S. administration's unwillingness to confront Israel on the issue.

"They just give in," Areikat told reporters during a breakfast meeting in Washington. "Israel has no reason to move forward because they are in a very comfortable position."

Areikat said the Palestinians would be unmoved by threats of a withdrawal of international aid. "We are not going to allow a financial sword to be held over our necks," he said.

By going to the U.N. Security Council, he said, the Palestinians hope to intensify pressure on Israel to halt Jewish settlement expansion and to set a timetable for a peace talks — and to persuade the United States to also pressure Israel.

"What we are hoping is to see a different approach from the United States," he said.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawy, a leading advocate for the move, said U.N. recognition is needed to shake up a peace process that in 18 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords has gone nowhere.

"We are addressing the fact that the prolonged peace process has done nothing but undermine the chances for peace," she said.

U.S.-mediated direct negotiations collapsed in September 2010 after Israel refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on Jewish settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Areikat said Israel bore the responsibility for forcing the Palestinians to turn to the U.N.

"What is left of Oslo?" he asked. "I mean Oslo spoke about no party will take any unilateral action to change the situation on the ground. Oslo spoke about keeping Palestinian institutions open in East Jerusalem. Oslo spoke about turning over more areas to the Palestinian Authority. We only control 18 percent of the West Bank."

"Oslo spoke about so many things and Israel didn't implement any of them," he said.

(Special correspondent Frenkel reported from Jerusalem and Landay, from Washington.)


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