x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

US and Israel step up efforts to block Palestinian statehood bid

Palestinian bid for UN recognition beginning to look unstoppable despite every effort from Washington and Tel Aviv.

TEL AVIV // Israel and the US are drawing on every weapon in their diplomatic armoury to prevent Palestinians taking their statehood bid to the United Nations this month.

Their efforts to stop the Palestinians from pursuing UN recognition include dispatching a US diplomatic team to hold talks with Palestinian leaders, peppering the media with Israeli pledges of a renewal of talks and issuing warnings that UN recognition would be a blow to peace.

Nevertheless, there is a gathering sense that the Palestinian bid may go forward despite the odds it has faced from the start.

"The gap between the Palestinian and US position is still wide," the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman said yesterday after a meeting in Ramallah between Mr Abbas and David Hale, the US special envoy who is trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to reconsider its plan.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Mr Abbas, said on Tuesday there was little Washington could do to change the Palestinians' plans.

Israel itself appears to hold little hope that the Palestinians will give in to pressure. Last week a secret Israeli foreign ministry cable obtained by Haaretz newspaper quoted Ron Prosor, Israel's UN ambassador, as saying he expects a massive vote in favour of the Palestinians should they proceed with their bid. Mr Prosor believes 130 to 140 of the 193 member states of the UN will endorse Palestinian statehood, a majority of more than two thirds.

Yesterday, China joined the list of backers. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the country "respects, understands and supports" Palestine's bid.

Such support is frustrating efforts of the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, to broker an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would help to kick-start peace negotiations. Talks have been suspended for a year after Israel rejected the Palestinian demand to renew a temporary moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinians appear to be reluctant to budge, however, and say they are turning to the UN after more than a decade of sporadic peace talks with Israel that have yielded few results. The Palestinian leadership has also indicated that it has grown disappointed with Mr Obama's efforts to convince Israel to halt settlement expansion in territory they want as part of their future state.

Indeed, a report by the anti-settlement group Peace Now yesterday is likely to cause further fury among Palestinians because it showed that settlers are building homes in the West Bank at almost twice the pace at which they are being constructed inside Israel. Relying on an analysis of aerial photographs and field visits to settlements, Peace Now concluded that the building pace in the settlements was one housing unit per 123 residents compared with a unit for every 235 residents within Israel.

The Israeli government, however, has insisted that settlement expansion should not hamper the progress of peace talks.

Israel opposes the UN bid, insisting a Palestinian state could be achieved only through a negotiated solution, and amid concerns that its hand in negotiations may be undermined should the Palestinian plan succeed.

The clock is ticking for the last-minute US and Israeli efforts because the Palestinian Authority plans to submit its request for UN membership on September 20, when world leaders begin gathering in New York for the 66th session of the General Assembly.

Washington has in recent months sided with an intensive Israeli campaign to persuade as many countries as possible to reject the Palestinian plan when it comes up for a vote. The US is expected to veto the resolution should it be voted on in the Security Council.

Before Mr Hale and another US Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, arrived in the region on Tuesday, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Mr Abbas to keep his options open ahead of the talks with the US diplomats.

Mr Abbas has also met Tony Blair, the envoy from the Quartet - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - on Tuesday in a meeting likely to have focused on the UN recognition bid. Mr Blair said afterwards that he was "optimistic" about bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and head of a predominantly right wing, pro-settler governing coalition, renewed his call for Mr Abbas to hold direct peace talks and drop the UN bid. "He has come to Jerusalem, I could go to Ramallah or we could both go to Brussels," he said on Monday after a meeting in Jerusalem with the visiting Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae