NAZARETH// Top Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, are engaged in "very serious" discussions about whether to abandon negotiations with Israel and seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, a senior Palestinian official said yesterday.
The official, who frequently speaks on behalf of Mr Abbas and who agreed to be quoted only on condition of anonymity, said there was momentum building among senior Palestinian political figures to act on a long-standing threat to bypass the current peace process, which has stalled, and ask the UN Security Council to recognise Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian officials have threatened before to walk out of talks and bid for UN recognition of statehood, but less out of a genuine intention to do so than in a bid to goad an intransigent Israel into taking talks seriously.
Earlier this month, Nabil Shaath, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, described the warning that Palestinians would seek statehood from the Security Council as primarily "symbolic".
"This will add to our strength in negotiations with the Israelis," Mr Shaath said. "It won't get us back our water resources from Israel, and it won't end the occupation."
Now, however, the warnings of top Palestinian political figures are in earnest, the official said. The debate, which is occurring at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority leadership, is no longer about whether to turn to the UN but when to do it, he said.
A meeting between Mr Abbas and Fatah leaders to discuss the option was expected to take place in the next few days, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday, quoting an unnamed Palestine Liberation Organisation official in the West Bank.
The Palestinian leadership is reported to be split into two camps: those who want to approach the UN immediately, and those who argue it would be better to delay until next year.
The source said Mr Abbas appeared to favour waiting until the 12-month US plan for creating a Palestinian state through direct talks with Israel expired in the summer, even though the Palestinian president did not believe the negotiations would be productive.
A unilateral declaration of statehood has been vigorously opposed by the government of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and its predecessors.
The United States has opposed it, too. On November 5, Mark Toner, a White House spokesman, described as "unhelpful" warnings from the Palestinian leadership that it might pursue statehood outside negotiations with Israel.
Hopes that the peace process can be revived have sunk over the past week as Israel has sought a guarantee in writing that Washington's demand for a 90-day freeze on settlement building will apply only to the West Bank, and not to East Jerusalem.
Mr Abbas insisted on Sunday, after meeting the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo that there would be no renewal of peace talks without a complete cessation of settlement construction by Israel.
In the past, Mr Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, have warned that, should the talks collapse, they would consider turning to the UN Security Council to win support for a declaration of Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 borders.
At Israel's urging, the US is reported to have included in its recent incentive package, designed to help Mr Netanyahu win backing for a freeze from his right-wing ministers, a pledge to block for a year any Palestinian bid for independence at the UN.
Mr Abbas is said to be concerned about angering the US with an early declaration of statehood. He believes, however, that if no progress has been made in the talks by the summer, Washington will be too isolated in the UN to object.
The Palestinian source said Mr Abbas was also persuaded that a move at the UN would be more credible by the summer when the programme of Palestinian institution-building being carried out by his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, will be near completion.
"The president's view is that there is a narrow window in the summer when we will have world sympathy, as Israel is shown not to be a genuine partner for peace," he said.
If a declaration of statehood is postponed until the summer, the senior official added, Mr Abbas was likely in the meantime to publicly press the UN for a formal confirmation of the illegality of the settlements.
It would not be the first time the Palestinians have made a declaration of independence. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, did so in 1988 from his base in Tunisia.
Samir Awad, a politics professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, said the Palestinians were now in a much stronger position to unilaterally declare a state than they were in the late 1980s, when Yasser Arafat led the movement.
Then the leadership was in exile and there was widespread international opposition to the declaration. Palestinian statehood was recognised by the Arab League and several other Muslim regimes, but failed to win support from the UN or any western state.
Dr Awad said the Palestinians had to find an innovative way out of "futile negotiations".
"This move would create a new situation where it is a Palestinian state, rather then just Palestinians, under occupation. That would bring into play a new dynamic and a new set of international laws."
* With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor in Jerusalem