Pressure mounted this morning on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his bid to become a U.N. member state in the face of a certain U.S. veto. Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama said that while the Palestinians "deserve a state of their own," they will only get one through direct negotiations with the Israelis.
In a speech to the General Assembly last year, Obama had built up hopes that the Palestinians might be accepted this month as the U.N.'s newest members, but only on the basis of an agreement between the Israeli and the Palestinians.
"I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. So am I," Obama said. "But the question isn't the goal we seek -- the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.
As Obama delivered his speech, U.S. and Europeans diplomats worked intensively behind the scenes to convince Abbas to back down.
The Palestinian leader has pledged to deliver a formal application for membership to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday. Under U.N. rules, the secretary general is required to pass on the application to the U.N. Security Council, which must approve all requests for U.N. membership.
The U.S. has made it clear it will cast its veto to block the Palestinian's membership bid, setting the stage for the Palestinians to take the matter before the 193-member General Assembly, which has the power to grant the Palestinians non-member observer status.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy today proposed that the Palestinians avoid a confrontation in the Security Council and go directly to the General Assembly, where they can secure observers status. In exchange for this concession, he said, the international community should establish a roadmap for a peace deal within a year.
"Today we are facing a very difficult choice. Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state," he said. "But who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?"
Sarkozy proposed that talks could begin within a month, with a target of reaching a deal on borders and security assurances within six months, and a full-fledged deal within a year. In the meantime, the Palestinians would be rewarded with an elevated standing at the United Nations, allowing them to pursue membership in U.N. agencies and treaty bodies, including the International Criminal Court.
"Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward. Most important, it would mean emerging from a state of immobility that favors only the extremists. We would be restoring hope by marking progress towards the final status," he said.
It remained unclear whether the Palestinians and Israelis would accept the new approach. But Security Council diplomats also said that the Palestinians are facing a new problem: They may not have the nine votes required for passage of a resolution in the 15-seat Security Council -- which would mean that the United States wouldn't even have to use its veto power. The council's four European members -- Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal -- are considering abstaining on the vote. Bosnia, a Muslim country seeking European Union membership, and Colombia, a close ally of the United States and Israel, are under pressure not to support the vote. Gabon is said to be on the fence.
Brazil, however, which has a seat on the Security Council, will likely back the Palestinian statehood push. "I regret that today I still cannot welcome Palestine's full membership in the United Nations. Brazil already recognizes the Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, in a manner consistent with U.N. resolutions," said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in her remarks before the General Assembly. "Like the majority of the countries in this assembly, we believe that the time has come for Palestine to be fully represented here."
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.