A bid for UN recognition of a state of Palestine is a last-ditch attempt to rescue troubled Mideast peace efforts, a Palestinian spokeswoman has said, rejecting Israel's charge that it is an attempt to bypass negotiations.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, urged the US to drop its opposition to the bid, dismissing Washington's stance as "pathetic" and harmful to American interests in the region. The Palestinians have come under intense pressure from the US, Britain and others to modify the bid but "have not succumbed," she said.
Tomorrow (NZ time), Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the UN General Assembly to recognise Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but still controls most access.
The Palestinians expect some two-thirds of the General Assembly's 193 members will accept Palestine as a non-member observer state. The US, Israel, Canada and a few others are opposed.
The vote will not change the situation on the ground, yet the Palestinians still say it is significant.
Abbas has said UN recognition is not meant to replace negotiations with Israel, but to improve Palestinian leverage and secure the pre-1967 war frontiers as the baseline for future border talks — an idea Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected.
This does not mean the UN vote will pave the way for a quick resumption of talks, which broke down four years ago.
Abbas has said he will not negotiate as long as Israel keeps expanding settlements on war-won land. Half a million Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, blurring the 1967 lines.
Beyond a 10-month partial halt in 2009 that failed to restart sustained peace talks, Netanyahu has refused to freeze construction in settlements.
Abbas aides have given conflicting accounts of whether UN recognition of "Palestine" would soften his demands for a settlement freeze ahead of any negotiations.
Referring to Israeli settlement building, Ashrawi said Wednesday that the UN bid "is a last-ditch effort, because we believe the two-state solution (a Palestinian state alongside Israel) is in jeopardy as a result of these actions."
She said if the US "can't vote yes, at least don't vote no, because that would be seen as being really pathetic by the rest of the world."
Deputy US Secretary of State William Burns met with Abbas overnight (NZ time) at his New York hotel in a last-minute attempt to halt the UN bid, Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said.
Burns told Abbas that the UN vote goes against US interests and President Barack Obama would make a new push in 2013 to see a Palestinian state formed through negotiations, Erekat said. Burns "asked President Abbas to change his mind," the aide said.
Abbas told Burns that the vote would take place, as planned, Erekat said.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the UN quest as futile, saying only negotiations with Israel can bring about a Palestinian state.
"They can get pieces of paper from the UN, but they are not going to move peace forward, they are not going to make a Palestinian statehood more real," he said.
"They boycott Israel. They refuse to talk to us. Who do they plan to make peace with?" he said.
Surveys indicate most Palestinians have become disillusioned with prospects of setting up a state through negotiations. Two decades of talks have failed to produce results, marred by intransigence and repeated bouts of violence.
The vote comes at an important time domestically for Abbas, who has watched his political rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas, gain popularity, particularly after holding its own during an Israeli offensive on Hamas-ruled Gaza earlier this month. The military action was aimed at stopping almost daily rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas in 2007, argues that negotiations with Israel are a waste of time, but Hamas leaders have come out in support of the UN bid in recent days.
During Israel's Gaza offensive, Abbas was largely sidelined at his compound in the West Bank, underscoring international concerns that the deadlock in peace efforts is increasingly weakening him and other Palestinian pragmatists.
Abbas aides have said they expect key European countries to support the UN bid in an attempt to strengthen Abbas.
France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland have pledged support. Germany said it would not support the initiative, while Britain's foreign secretary said his government would not oppose it. He said Britain would only vote in favor if the Palestinians softened some of the language.
Israel appeared to be backing away from plans to immediately punish the Palestinians for going to the UN Instead, an Israeli government official said Israel would wait to see whether the Palestinians would use the world body's expected approval to hurt Israel.
The Palestinians plan to seek membership or access to a number of international and UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, once their statehood bid is approved.
Israel would respond "forcefully" if the Palestinians try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss policy considerations. If the Palestinians use their upgraded international status "as a tool to confront Israel in the international arena, there will be a response."
Until then, he said, Israel will be bound by its obligations to the Palestinians under existing peace agreements, but won't necessarily go beyond them. Earlier there was talk of Israel's retaliating by canceling the partial peace accords.