Palestinian vow may dominate UN meet

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gestures after delivering a Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gestures after delivering a speech in which he said Palestinians are going to the Security Council with a UN membership bid, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Sept. 16, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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UNITED NATIONS - As the leaders of 193 nations get set to speak at the General Assembly here Wednesday, the meeting is being eclipsed by fresh tensions as the Palestinian delegation vowed last week to seek statehood for its people.

Another wrinkle in the annual gathering stems from the fact that several powerful nations -- including the host country, the United States -- plan to boycott the follow-up talks to a controversial UN-sponsored conference on racism held in South Africa 10 years ago.

As those issues loom large, they threaten to overshadow some of the key concerns that the United Nations is designed to address, from peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts to protecting the environment and stamping out poverty through the Millennium Development Goals.

The Palestinian leadership has vowed to apply to the UN General Assembly or the Security Council for an elevation from its current "observer" status to either full statehood recognition or to be accepted as a nonmember state, such as the Vatican.

The distinction would, aside from providing a psychological boost to the residents of the occupied territories, allow them to seek redress in the International Court of Justice for crimes committed on those lands.

But the move, which gained momentum in the past year, has been vigorously discouraged in Washington and Tel Aviv, both of which consider it an end run around the peace process, which has long consisted of direct talks with Israel, with the United States serving as a broker.

"The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties, and the route to that lies in Jerusalem and Ramallah, not in New York," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week in Washington as she sent envoys to Ramallah to thwart the application.

Despite the U.S. threat to veto the proposal in the Security Council and cut off financial aid, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters that the proverbial horse is out of the barn: He will file one way or the other during the GA meeting -- saying direct talks for 20 years have failed.

Abbas is scheduled to speak Friday, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"This is going to dominate the General Assembly because of the uncertainty that surrounds it," said Alan Elsner, executive director of the Israel Project for the Americas. "There's a sense that diplomatic maneuvering is going to continue until the very last moment so we don't know what's going to happen."

Elsner said such an application has big consequences because Palestinians need the hundreds of millions of dollars the United States provides in financial aid, adding that to apply would be "violating the idea that the conflict will be resolved through direct negotiations."

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said the discussion could drain attention from other worthy UN issues.

"In this case on the question of Palestine, the UN has been engaged since before the state of Israel was created in 1948, but the actual engagement has been prevented by U.S. control of the so-called peace process," said Bennis, author of "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer."

"Right now, for the first time since it began in 1991 the Palestinian leadership has broken with the single-minded focus on the U.S.-backed peace process because it hasn't led anywhere."

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