Washington – The Obama administration has initiated a last-ditch diplomatic campaign to avert a confrontation this month over a plan by Palestinians to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations, but it may already be too late, according to senior American officials and foreign diplomats
The administration has circulated a proposal for renewed peace talks with the Israelis in the hopes of persuading the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to abandon the bid for recognition at the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly beginning Sept. 20.
The administration has made it clear to Mr. Abbas that it will veto any request presented to the United Nations Security Council to make a Palestinian state a new member outright.
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But the United States does not have enough support to block a vote by the General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinians’ nonvoting observer “entity” to that of a nonvoting observer state. The change would pave the way for the Palestinians to join dozens of United Nations bodies and conventions, and it could strengthen their ability to pursue cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Senior officials said the administration wanted to avoid not only a veto but also the more symbolic and potent General Assembly vote that would leave the United States and only a handful of other nations in the opposition. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuverings, said they feared that in either case a wave of anger could sweep the Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world at a time when the region is already in tumult. President Obama would be put in the position of threatening to veto recognition of the aspirations of most Palestinians or risk alienating Israel and its political supporters in the United States.
“If you put the alternative out there, then you’ve suddenly just changed the circumstances and changed the dynamic,” a senior administration official involved in the flurry of diplomacy said Thursday. “And that’s what we’re trying very much to do.”
Efforts to head off the Palestinian diplomatic drive have percolated all summer but have taken on urgency as the vote looms in the coming weeks. “It’s not clear to me how it can be avoided at the moment,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator who is now executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington. “An American veto could inflame emotions and bring anti-American sentiment to the forefront across the region.”
While some officials remain optimistic that a compromise can be found, the administration has simultaneously begun planning to limit the fallout of a statehood vote. A primary focus is to ensure the Israelis and Palestinians continue to cooperate on security matters in the West Bank and along Israel’s borders, administration officials said.
“We’re still focused on Plan A,” another senior administration official said, referring to the diplomatic efforts by the administration’s new special envoy, David M. Hale, and the president’s Middle East adviser on the National Security Council, Dennis B. Ross. Mr. Hale replaced the more prominent George J. Mitchell Jr., who resigned in May after two years of frustrated efforts to make progress on a peace deal.
The State Department late last month issued a formal diplomatic message to more than 70 countries urging them to oppose any unilateral moves by the Palestinians at the United Nations. The message, delivered by American ambassadors to their diplomatic counterparts in those countries, argued that a vote would destabilize the region and undermine peace efforts, though those are, at least for now, moribund.
Two administration officials said that the intent of the message was to narrow the majority the Palestinians are expected to have in the General Assembly. They said that and the new peace proposal — to be issued in a statement by the Quartet, the diplomatic group focused on the Middle East comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — could persuade potential supporters to step back from a vote on recognition, and thus force Mr. Abbas to have second thoughts.
“The fact is there are countries who would choose not to do that vote if there was an alternative,” the first senior administration official said.
In essence, the administration is trying to translate the broad principles Mr. Obama outlined in May into a concrete road map for talks that would succeed where past efforts have failed: satisfy Israel, give the Palestinians an alternative to going to the United Nations and win the endorsement of the Europeans.
Diplomats are laboring to formulate language that would bridge stubborn differences over how to treat Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and over Israel’s demand for recognition of its status as a Jewish state. A statement by the Quartet would be more than a symbolic gesture. It would outline a series of meetings and actions to resume talks to create a Palestinian state.
The Quartet’s members are divided over the proposal’s terms and continue to negotiate them among themselves, and with the Palestinians and Israelis.
Among the issues still on the table are how explicitly to account for the growing settlements in the West Bank. The question of Israel’s status is also opposed by Russia and viewed warily by some European countries. The Palestinians have never acceded to a formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, in deference at least in part to the Palestinians who live in Israel.
The Quartet’s envoy, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, visited Jerusalem on Tuesday to negotiate the terms of the proposal with the Israelis. He is expected to discuss it with the Palestinians soon.
The Israelis have so far responded positively to the draft, but the Palestinian position remains unclear.
Two administration officials said that Mr. Abbas had recently indicated that he would forgo a United Nations vote in favor of real talks. But a senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, angrily dismissed the American proposal as inadequate and said a vote would go ahead regardless.
“Whoever wrote this thought we are so weak that we cannot even wiggle or that we are stupid,” he said in a telephone interview from Ramallah in the West Bank. He added, “Whatever is to be offered, it is too late.”
Within the administration, there are different views of the situation’s urgency. Some officials believe that the United States can weather a veto diplomatically, as it has before, and politically at home because of the strong support for Israel in Congress. But others view the Palestinian push for recognition as deeply alarming, raising the specter of new instability and violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
“The most powerful argument is that this will provoke a Palestinian awakening, that there will be a new violence and that we’ll be blamed,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel.