The Palestinians are certain to win U.N. recognition as a state on Thursday but success could exact a high price: delaying an independent state of Palestine because of Israel's vehement opposition.
The United States, Israel's closest ally, mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote, which the Palestinians view as a historic step in their quest for global recognition.
The Palestinians say they need U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel and the non-member observer state status could also open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court.
In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. But the Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
For Abbas, the U.N. bid is crucial if he wants to maintain his leadership and relevance, especially following the recent conflict between his Hamas rivals in Gaza and Israel. It saw the Islamic militant group claim victory and raise its standing in the Arab world while his Fatah movement was sidelined and marginalized.
The Palestinians chose the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" for the vote. Before it takes place, there will be a morning of speeches by supporters focusing on the rights of the Palestinians. Abbas is scheduled to be a speaker at that meeting, and again in the afternoon when he will present the case for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfil the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.
"We need an environment conducive to that," she told reporters in Washington. "And we've urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult."
The U.S. Congress has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians improve their status at the United Nations.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defence bill Wednesday that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.
"Increasing the Palestinians' role in the United Nations is absolutely the wrong approach, especially in light of recent military developments in the Middle East," he said in a statement. "Israel is one of America's closest allies, and any movement to strengthen one of its fiercest enemies must not be tolerated."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate "both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations," which broke down four years ago.
But Israeli officials appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.
Regev, meanwhile, affirmed that Israel is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
U.N. diplomats said they will be listening closely to Abbas' speech to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon before the vote to see if he makes an offer of fresh negotiations with no strings, which could lead to new talks. The Palestinians have been demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition.
As a sign of the importance Israel attaches to the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to New York and was scheduled to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before the vote. Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor had been scheduled to speak in the General Assembly after Abbas, but it appears Lieberman may now make Israel's case opposing the resolution.
Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly. The 193-member world body is dominated by countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the resolution to raise its status from an observer to a nonmember observer state only requires a majority vote for approval. To date, 132 countries — over two-thirds of the U.N. member states — have recognized the state of Palestine.
The Palestinians have been courting Western nations, especially the Europeans, seen as critical to enhancing their international standing. A number have announced they will vote "yes" including France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.
A high vote could boost Abbas' standing.
"If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain," said India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.
Following last year's move by the Palestinians to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, the United States withheld funds from the organization, which amount to 22 per cent of its budget. The U.S. also withheld money to the Palestinians.