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U.N. showdown looms as Palestinians press statehood

NEW YORK — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed his determination Monday to seek full United Nations membership, spurning the latest attempt by White House negotiators to avoid having to block the move and inflaming anti-American anger in the Middle East.

With the Obama administration having sided with Israel in pledging to veto the Palestinian statehood bid, mediators from the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations worked feverishly in closed-door meetings to find a formula to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks and to prevent a confrontation at the U.N. this week that could plunge the region deeper into turmoil.

"We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "And no matter what does or doesn't happen this week, it will not produce the kind of outcome that everyone is hoping for."

A member of Abbas' delegation, however, said that the Palestinians won't be deterred from proceeding with their request for full U.N. membership, which, if approved, would be widely viewed as international recognition of Palestinian statehood and a rebuke to Israel.

"Our intention to pursue full membership in the United Nations is a fait accompli," Husam Zomlot, the former Palestine Liberation Organization representative to Great Britain, said in a telephone interview. "The question now is how to take the fastest route possible and we believe the fastest route is the Security Council."

The issue promises to dominate the U.N. General Assembly session that opens on Wednesday. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to address the annual gathering of world leaders, flew into New York on Monday evening.

Abbas said that he would present a letter on Friday to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — which Ban will pass to the Security Council — requesting full U.N. membership for an independent state of Palestine, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials. The Palestinians envision their state on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967.

Speaking to reporters en route to New York, Abbas said he was under tremendous pressure to reconsider submitting the U.N. application, which would have to be approved by nine of the Security Council's 15 members.

"We decided to take this step and all hell has broken out against us," he said. "From now until I give the speech, we have only one choice: going to the Security Council."

Obama has promised to block the Palestinian request using the veto that the United States wields as one of five permanent Security Council members. He and his aides contend that the issue of Palestinian statehood can only be resolved through direct, U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel.

Israel fiercely opposes the Palestinian move, denouncing it as a unilateral action that could jeopardize a resumption of the talks that stalled nearly a year ago.

The Palestinians insist they have no choice, blaming the breakdown in the peace process on the right-wing Israeli government's refusal to freeze the construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"This is our moment to become members of the U.N. system," said Zomlot. "We are entitled under international law."

The issue has left Obama, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, in a difficult position. By withholding the U.S. veto, he would jeopardize his support among American backers of Israel. But by using it, Obama will further weaken U.S. standing in the Middle East, where popular uprisings have unleashed anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments that U.S.-backed dictators held in check for decades.

"The United States has to make a choice. They want to ally themselves and use their veto in the Security Council and show the world that they are a puppet of Israel? That is their choice . . . but we won't be swayed by false promises," a Palestinian close to Abbas said in Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, he said that the Palestinians had rejected several new proposals over the weekend. They included a U.S. plan under which they would submit their U.N. membership application but then "freeze" it for six months to allow more time for a resumption of peace talks.

The offers were rejected as "efforts to distract," he said.

"Our application is with the full expectation that it will be processed immediately," said Zomlot. "We will not accept any scenario in which there are any political considerations or political blockage."

Some diplomats were holding out slim hope that U.S., European Union, Russian and U.N. mediators — known as "The Quartet" — could cobble together a last-minute deal that could kick-start direct negotiations and persuade the Palestinians to withhold their application.

A senior Middle Eastern diplomat said that there was a growing fear that the crisis could ignite violent protests in the region should the Palestinians go forward and the U.S. exercise its veto.

"The one thing is that maybe there has to be some heat before we get a way out of this and maybe this has generated that heat now," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for his government. "But it could be that the outcome could be very bad."

(Clark reported from New York, McClatchy special correspondent Frenkel reported from Jerusalem, Landay from Washington.)


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