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Race to douse a new Mideast flash point; The US is late? Shocker!

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Copyright 2011 International Herald Tribune
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The International Herald Tribune

September 3, 2011 Saturday

NEWS; Pg. 1

1060 words

Race to douse a new Mideast flash point;
American campaign seeks to avert clash over Palestinian bid at U.N.




The United States has begun a diplomatic campaign to prevent a confrontation this month over a Palestinian plan to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations.


The Obama administration has begun a last-ditch diplomatic campaign to avert a confrontation this month over a Palestinian plan 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 intended to be the basis of renewed peace talks with the Israelis - based on a formula that President Barack Obama outlined in May - in hopes of persuading the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to abandon the bid for recognition at the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly beginning Sept. 20.

The administration has privately made it clear to Mr. Abbas that it will veto any request that comes before the U.N. Security Council to make a Palestinian state a new member outright. But the United States alone does not have enough support to block a vote by the General Assembly to elevate the current status of the Palestinians' nonvoting observer ''entity'' to that of an nonvoting observer state.

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 opposition. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuverings, said they feared that in either case a backlash could sweep the Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world when the region is already in tumult.

''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 an increased urgency as the vote and the confrontation loom. It has created a diplomatic dilemma for Mr. Obama, who after an uneven start has championed the aspirations of Arab protesters across the region. Now he is in a position of threatening to veto recognition of the aspirations of most Palestinians - or risk alienating Israel and its political supporters in the United States.

''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 remained optimistic that a compromise could be found, the administration has simultaneously begun planning to limit the fallout of a Palestinian vote. A primary focus is to ensure that 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, who resigned in May.

The State Department last week issued a formal diplomatic message, or démarche, to more than 70 countries urging them to oppose any unilateral moves by the Palestinians at the United Nations. The message, delivered by U.S. 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 expect to have in the General Assembly. They said that and the new peace proposal - to be issued in a statement by the so-called 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 force Mr. Abbas to have second thoughts. ''There are countries who would choose not to do that vote if there was an alternative,'' the first senior administration official said.

A statement by the Quartet would be more than a symbolic gesture. It would offer a road map, including a series of meetings and actions, to resume negotiations to create a Palestinian state, based on certain principles, as Mr. Obama described in speech in May. Those principles include Israel's boundaries before the 1967 war, adjusted to account for land swaps that reflect West Bank areas now heavily populated by Jewish settlers, and an affirmation of Israel's status as a Jewish state or homeland.

The Quartet itself is divided over the terms of the proposal and continues to negotiate them among itself, as well as with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Among the issues left is how explicitly to account for the growing West Bank settlements. The question of Israel's status is also opposed by Russia and viewed warily by some European countries. The Palestinians have never acceded to any formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, in deference to the Palestinians who now live in it.

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 was expected to return to the West Bank to discuss it with the Palestinians next week.

The Israelis have so far responded positively to the draft, but the Palestinian position remains unclear.

Two administration officials said that Mr. Abbas had indicated as recently as last week that he would forgo a U.N. vote in favor of the prospect of real talks. But a senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, angrily dismissed the American proposal now being circulated 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 the Palestinian capital in the West Bank, Ramallah. He added, ''Whatever is to be offered, it is too late.''

September 3, 2011

Copyright 2011 International Herald Tribune
All Rights Reserved

The International Herald Tribune

September 3, 2011 Saturday