The expected U.N. vote Thursday to recognize a state of Palestine will be far more than symbolic — it could give the Palestinians leverage in future border talks with Israel and open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state.
The Palestinians want the 193-member General Assembly to accept "Palestine," on the lands Israel occupied in 1967, as a non-member observer state. They anticipate broad support.
For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.N. bid is a last-ditch attempt to stay relevant as a leader after years of failed peace talks with Israel, at a time when his Islamic militant Hamas rivals are gaining ground.
The U.S. and Israel have tried to block the quest for U.N. recognition of Palestine, saying it's an attempt to bypass Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down four years ago.
The U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, met with Abbas in New York on Wednesday, asking Abbas again to drop the idea and promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Abbas told Burns it was too late.
Israel, meanwhile, 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.
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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's predecessors accepted the 1967 lines as a basis for border talks, with modifications to be negotiated, including land swaps that would enable Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. Those talks did not produce a deal, and the sides remained apart on other key issues.
Netanyahu rejects the 1967 lines as starting point while pressing ahead with settlement construction, leaving Abbas little incentive to resume negotiations. Israel goes to elections in January, and polls indicate Netanyahu has a strong chance of winning.
Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the U.N., though the recognition request presented to the world body calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.
It's not clear if negotiations could resume even if Obama, freed from the constraints of his re-election campaign, can turn his attention to the Mideast conflict.
Abbas aides have given conflicting accounts of whether Abbas, once armed with global backing for the 1967 borders, will return to negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze. About half a million Israelis have settled on war-won land.
A construction stop is unlikely, even more so after hawks in Netanyahu's Likud Party scored major gains in primaries this week.
Israel has said it is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
Government spokesman Mark Regev affirmed the position on Wednesday. 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."
Palestinian officials countered that their historic U.N. bid is meant to salvage a peace deal they say is being sabotaged by Israeli settlement expansion. "It is a last-ditch effort because we believe the two-state solution is in jeopardy as a result of these actions," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, told reporters in Ramallah on Wednesday.
The Palestinians expect that at least two-thirds of the 193 member states in the General Assembly will support them on Thursday, including a number of European countries, among them France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland.
Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Ashrawi urged the U.S. to at least abstain, saying that voting no "would be seen as being really pathetic by the rest of the world" and hurt American interests in the Middle East.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that "in the long term, this region can only find peace through negotiations to resolve the Middle East conflict," but she did not say whether her country would abstain or vote against.
"Nothing will really be gained either by unilateral Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations which aim for recognition nor by Israel's continued building of settlements," she said.
The vote comes at an important time domestically for Abbas. His Hamas rivals, who control Gaza, have gained popularity after holding their own during an Israeli offensive there earlier this month, aimed at stopping frequent Gaza rocket fire on Israel.
During the Gaza offensive, Abbas was sidelined in his compound in the West Bank, underscoring international concerns that the deadlock in peace efforts is weakening Palestinian pragmatists. Hamas, which seized 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 U.N. bid in recent days.
Other than creating leverage in negotiations, U.N. recognition would also allow the Palestinians to seek membership in U.N. agencies and international bodies, for example making them eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Perhaps most significantly, it could open the door to a new attempt to join the International Criminal Court and seek an investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel in the occupied territories.
Abbas' self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, unilaterally recognized the court's jurisdiction in 2009 and pressed prosecutors to open an investigation into Israel's previous Gaza offensive. Prosecutors noted at the time that the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, is only open to states. Israel has not signed the statute and does not recognize the court's jurisdiction.
Ashrawi on Wednesday avoided explicit threats to take Israel to court, but suggested it's an option. "If Israel refrains from settlement activities ... there is no immediate pressing need to go," she said, adding that this could change if "Israel persists in its violations."
Israel would respond "forcefully" if the Palestinians try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel at the ICC, said an Israeli government 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," he said.
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 retaliating by cancelling partial peace accords dating back to the 1990s.
In the West Bank, the view of Abbas' quest for recognition was mixed. Many were bitter, saying they've heard too many promises that statehood is near and don't believe a nod from the U.N. will make a difference.
"Nothing will come of it," said Arwa Abu Helo, a 23-year-old student in Ramallah. "It's just a way of misleading the public."
Yousef Mohammed, a bank teller, said Abbas was trying to "gain the spotlight after Hamas said it won in Gaza."
Hurriyeh Abdel Karim, 65, said she was willing to give Abbas a chance. "If he succeeds, maybe our life improves," she said.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.