UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pressed ahead with his campaign for statehood before the U.N. despite frantic U.S. efforts Tuesday to forge a diplomatic solution that would avoid a charged vote before the Security Council.
Abbas met in New York Tuesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country has Europe's largest Muslim population, as he sought support ahead of his General Assembly speech on Friday, when he has vowed to formally request U.N. membership.
Envoys of the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — planned to meet again Tuesday in an effort to avert a showdown over Palestinian statehood by crafting a way forward that would be enough to persuade the Palestinians to drop their bid and have enough caveats for Israel to get its support.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, in New York Tuesday for high-level meetings, told Europe-1 radio in Paris that his country is still working to get Mideast peace talks restarted before the United Nations faces a decision over whether to recognize a Palestinian state. "The status quo is untenable," Juppe said. "The only way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem is direct negotiations."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, told Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a Sept. 17 letter circulated Tuesday that his country backs the push for Palestinian statehood, and that recognizing it would be "an act of historic justice."
Outside U.N. headquarters, a handful of people were arrested on Tuesday for blocking traffic as they protested Abbas' campaign. They were among about 30 people demonstrating against the Palestinian effort for recognition as an independent state.
As the Palestinians edged closer to seeking statehood recognition from the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Abbas to meet with him in New York.
Israeli officials say that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians are violating a pledge to resolve disagreements through negotiations.
Netanyahu told a gathering of his Likud Party in Israel that he would speak "the truth" when he travels to New York this week — "the truth of a people that wants peace, a nation that was attacked time after time and that is being attacked time after time by those that don't oppose our policies but rather our very existence."
Netanyahu said the path to peace lies through negotiations, not "unilateral" acts at the U.N.
"The most important thing in order to reach the end of negotiations is to begin negotiations and to stick with them," he said. "This is something that Israel is willing to do and something the Palestinians until this moment are refraining from doing. We can only hope things change."
Netanyahu also warned the international community against prematurely establishing a Palestinian state when many issues in the conflict remain unresolved. He did not elaborate, saying this would be the focus of his U.N. speech on Friday.
"We do not want a piece of paper, we want real peace, peace on the ground, peace with security arrangements, peace that will last and not fray before it is signed," he said.
While any submission by the Palestinians may wait weeks or months for U.N. action, it has Mideast mediators scrambling to find a way to draw the two sides back to a negotiating table.
Regardless, Abbas said he had not been swayed by what he called "tremendous pressure" to drop the recognition bid and resume peace talks with Israel. Senior aides to the Palestinian leader said Abbas was undaunted by threats of punitive measures.
"Abbas says to every one: it's enough, 20 years of negotiations are more than enough, the world should intervene and end the Israeli occupation as long as the USA can't," said Mohammed Ishtayeh, an Abbas aide.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said there was still time to find a solution, telling reporters in New York that the U.S. is talking with all sides to defuse the standoff.
She joined Netanyahu in calling for new talks and repeated the U.S. position that the only path to a separate state for Palestinians is through negotiations with Israel.
Nabil Shaath, senior aide to Abbas, told The Associated Press that the Palestinian leader informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during their meeting Monday that he would present him with a letter requesting full membership on Friday, ahead of Abbas' speech to the General Assembly.
Any candidate for U.N. membership must submit a letter to the secretary-general stating it is a "peace-loving" state and accepts the U.N. Charter. Ban is expected to examine the Palestinian letter and then send it to the 15-member U.N. Security Council, which must give its approval before a vote in the larger General Assembly.
Shaath said last ditch efforts to dissuade the Palestinian president from approaching the Security Council had failed. He said Palestinians had been threatened with harsh punitive measures but had decided to move ahead nonetheless.
The comment appeared to refer to the warnings by some in the U.S. Congress that current and future financial aid to the Palestinian Authority could be in jeopardy if they move ahead with the membership bid. The U.S. gives some $500 million a year in aid to the Palestinians.
Israel has not said how it would respond to a Palestinian declaration of independence, though hardliners in Netanyahu's government have called for a variety of measures, including annexing the West Bank or withholding tax funds that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians are violating "the spirit and the word of signed commitments" that pledged to resolve disagreements through negotiations. "Israel reserves the right to respond," he said Tuesday, refusing to elaborate.
Ban "reiterated his support for the two-state solution and stressed his desire to ensure that the international community and the two parties can find a way forward for resuming negotiations within a legitimate and balanced framework," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said after the secretary-general met with Abbas.
The comment underscored the desires of some members of the Quartet of Mideast mediators that Palestinian statehood should not be granted before a resumption of peace talks. While the four international mediators have repeatedly called for renewed negotiations, Russia supports U.N. membership for Palestine.
The long-stalled negotiations have been unable to solve key issues including Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the status of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic work, said progress was being made on a joint Quartet statement that would include a modest upgrade to Palestinian status at the U.N., address Israel's demand that it be recognized as a Jewish state, and set a broad timeline for renewed negotiations.
The timeframe wouldn't be a deadline, as such, but would be aimed at addressing the Palestinian desire to see quick action. The offer would come with an unchanged message that Washington would veto the Palestinian bid at the Security Council for U.N. membership, but at the very least it would represent a dignity-saving compromise for Abbas' U.S.-backed government.
By promising a veto in the Security Council, the U.S. has blocked that course for the Palestinians before they even submit the request.
Alternatively, the Palestinians could seek the approval of a majority of the General Assembly's 193 member states to upgrade their status from a permanent observer to a nonmember observer state — a designation that would leave them with a symbolic victory despite years of failed negotiations and waning hopes for statehood.
Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper in New York, Edith M. Lederer and Anita Snow at the United Nations, Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Julie Pace in Washington, D.C., contributed reporting.