Washington: The US and Europe are racing to avert or delay a looming showdown over Palestinian statehood at the United Nations that may crush already dim Mideast peace prospects.
Senior US and European officials, at meetings on Sunday afternoon in New York, hoped to find a way of bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to stalled negotiations without antagonising either side or embroiling the region in new turmoil.
But each is locked in intractable positions over the expected Palestinian bid this week for UN recognition and chances for a breakthrough seem slim. As a result, officials say the effort may be more about damage control than diplomacy.
The Palestinians are frustrated by their inability to win concessions from Israel such as a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They want to seize the moment to try to gain greater standing and attention with a high stakes wager on statehood and UN membership. The US and Israel vehemently opposed this move.
Only 12 months ago, President Barack Obama said he wanted the UN to be welcoming Palestine as its newest member this year. But talks long have since broken down, and the US is in the unenviable position of leading the opposition to something it actually supports.
The US has promised a veto of the Palestinian bid at the Security Council, leading to fears the action could spark violence in the region.
The American side was working to secure additional opposition to recognition, officials said. Without nine affirmative votes in the 15-member Council, the Palestinian resolution would fail and Washington is hoping it won`t have to act alone.
US officials believe that six other members may vote against or abstain, meaning the Palestinians would fall short. That tally could not be immediately confirmed.
Heading off or watering down the Palestinian resolution had been the goal of international diplomats. They hoped to parlay that success into a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders where the two sides would relaunch negotiations.
Yet the Palestinians have refused to back down and give up the little leverage they hope to win.
"The aim of this is try to elevate the Palestinians to a more equal footing so that this disparity that existed over the last 18 years, which allowed Israel to exploit it to its advantage, can end and they can talk now to an equal member state of the United Nations," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian`s top representative to the US.
Areikat told CNN`s "State of the Union" on Sunday that the Palestinians could accept an alternative, but it must include "clear terms of reference to return to the negotiations, clear time frame and an endgame”.
Still, even with a loss in the Security Council, the Palestinians were expected to take their case for recognition to the General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support and the US cannot block it.
A nod from the General Assembly could give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.
The Israelis fear such courts would target them unfairly, which is something that Israel`s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said had been outlined by the Palestinians themselves.
They are "going to the UN to get this state not to make peace but to challenge Israel`s legitimacy in international arenas and to try to undermine the peace process," he told CNN.
His comments reflected Israel`s concern about further isolation and underscored the country`s mistrust of the United Nations.
Envoys from the US, the European Union, the UN and Russia were meeting on Sunday, followed by talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Those international negotiators have failed to persuade the Palestinians to scale down their ambitions for full UN membership and recognition as a state. But they were trying to craft a statement that could restart peace talks.
Such a statement would offer the Palestinians a modest upgrade in status, address Israel`s demand that its identity as a Jewish state be upheld and lay out a broad timeline and parameters for renewed negotiations, officials said.
"What we will be looking for over the next few days, is a way of putting together something that allows (Palestinian) claims and legitimate aspirations for statehood to be recognised whilst actually renewing the only thing that`s going to produce a state, which is a negotiation directly between the two sides," former British prime minister Tony Blair told ABC television`s "This Week”. He now serves as an international envoy to the Mideast.
The Palestinians have rejected proposals from Blair and seconded by US envoys Dennis Ross and David Hale that would give the Palestinians the "attributes of a state”, including membership in non-judicial international organisations, without actual statehood.
"It is too late now," Abbas aide Nabil Shaath said. "The proposals (that) came to us ... are not good even as a starting point."
Given the stakes and entrenched positions, the best the US and its allies may be able to achieve is a delay in action on the Palestinian bid.