UN: Israel and Palestinians still far apart

TAREK EL-TABLAWY - Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.'s political chief said Tuesday that Israel and the Palestinians remain far apart on reaching a peace agreement but insists "now is time for everyone to give diplomacy a chance."

B. Lynn Pascoe told the U.N. Security Council that the main obstacles to setting up a Palestinian state — a bid which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted last week despite a promised U.S. veto and pressure to drop the application — are political, not institutional. He said that the main issue remains the "continuing Israeli occupation and the ongoing Palestinian divide."

The remarks at the monthly briefing on the Middle East highlighted the tenuous path confronting not only the Palestinians and Israelis, but also the Quartet of Mideast mediators who have drafted a plan to bring the two sides together, with an ultimate goal of achieving a deal by the end of next year.

"Resuming negotiations, and making progress, is easier said than done," Pascoe told the council. With the Quartet's proposal and the push to restart negotiations, "this would be a moment where the parties would be truly tested in their readiness to make serious proposals that addressed the core concerns of the other."

Abbas' insistence on presenting the application for Palestine's full membership to the U.N. pushed the long-stalled peace process again to the forefront of this year's General Assembly and sparked a frenzy of last-minute diplomacy to dissuade him from submitting the application. The U.S. meanwhile, has vowed to veto the statehood bid in the Security Council and Abbas said that if it was rejected, they could turn to the General Assembly, seeking lesser status of nonmember observer state and resubmit the application again with the council, which is slated to discuss the application on Wednesday.

The Quartet — the United States, the U.N., the European Union and Russia — drew up a plan that calls on both parties to submit an agenda within a month, followed by comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months of the resumption of negotiations. A final deal would be targeted by the end of 2012.

But neither side has backed away from what it sees as the crux of the dispute. The Palestinians want Israel to return to pre-1967 Mideast war borders and to declare a state that would include east Jerusalem as its capital. Equally important, they are demanding that the Israelis halt settlement building before they return to talks.

Israel, however, has rejected the settlement conditions, with Netanyahu on Tuesday ruling out a freeze. It also worries that a return to pre-1967 borders would leave it more exposed to Palestinian attacks. It also wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel's Jewish character.

On Tuesday, Israel announced 1,100 new housing units in east Jerusalem, a move that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized as counterproductive to the Mideast peace talks.

Pascoe said that the announcement was "of particular concern," and said that "we have repeatedly stated that settlement activity is illegal and contrary to Israel's" commitment to the peace efforts.

He also said extremists on both sides should not be allowed to "inflame the situation," referencing several arson attacks by Jewish settlers on a mosque and a knife attack in Tel Aviv by a West Bank Palestinian on Aug. 29, as well as Israeli reports of a foiled suicide bombing the same month in Jerusalem. Summing up a toll from violence in the area, he said that during the reporting period, two Palestinians were killed and 102 injured while two Israeli security forces and 10 Israeli civilians were injured.

"In the current atmosphere, it is essential that all sides impress on their security forces and civilian population the need to act responsibly," he said. "They must do their utmost to avoid escalation, and take early action to defuse possible tensions."