French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the Palestinians on Tuesday to drop their bid for UN membership and opt instead for upgraded status in the world body, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remained determined to pursue international recognition of an independent state.
Diplomats close to the talks said Sarkozy would outline on Wednesday his proposal for the Palestinians to seek approval in the General Assembly, where no member holds a veto, for a resolution that would make Palestine a non-member observer state, raising their status from that of permanent observer.
Such a move would avoid a certain U.S. veto if the Palestinian membership bid were put to a vote in the Security Council. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity.
With Abbas determined to seek membership rather than upgraded status, the Palestinian delegation relentlessly knocked on diplomatic doors at the UN trying to sell their case for international recognition.
The issue of the unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, born of decades of frustration and failed negotiations with Israel, has consumed diplomats who are gathering for Wednesday's opening of the annual UN General Assembly ministerial meeting.
Abbas has rejected all attempts to steer him away from formally submitting an application for full UN membership. He plans to submit the application on Friday when he speaks to assembled world leaders.
Netanyahu to speak 'the truth'
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a meeting with members of his hardline Likud Party before leaving Jerusalem late Tuesday, vowed to speak "the truth" in New York in his speech at the UN — "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."
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu called on Abbas to begin "direct negotiations in New York and continue them in Jerusalem and Ramallah." The statement provided no other details or indications that Netanyahu was willing to cede to any of the Palestinians' demands.
In another development, the U.S. and its allies changed tactics Tuesday, as the White House announced that Obama would meet Abbas. At the same time, U.S. officials conceded they could not stop Abbas from officially launching his case for the Security Council's approval of the statehood effort.
However, they hoped to contain the fallout by urging Abbas not to push for an actual vote in the council, where the US has promised a veto, to give international peacemakers time to produce a statement that would be the basis for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Obama is expected to make a pro forma request to Abbas when they meet Wednesday not to proceed with his initial plan, but also make the case for the Palestinian leader to essentially drop the move for statehood recognition after delivering his letter of intent to the UN, expected Friday.
Obama will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
The new approach would see the "quartet" of Mideast peace mediators — the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia — issue a statement addressing both Palestinian and Israeli concerns and setting a timetable for a return to the long-stalled peace talks, officials said.
Israel would have to accept its pre-1967 borders with land exchanges as the basis for a two-state solution, and the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel's Jewish character if they were to reach a deal quickly, officials close to the talks said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy.
European officials, supported by the United States, were presenting the contours of a compromise agreement to the Israeli and Palestinian governments, and asking for tough concessions from each. Officials said several extremely challenging hurdles were leading to some pessimism as to whether mediators would be able to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, with both sides being pressed to accept positions they've long deemed anathema to their visions of a two-state peace pact.
The difficult diplomacy reflected in some ways the intractability of a dispute that has foiled would-be peacemakers for decades, even though none of the actual elements of a final agreement was being discussed.
Quartet envoys met for a third straight day in New York to come up with a formula that would lead to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The goal is to reach a comprehensive agreement that would address this week's three major issues, officials said.
Letter of request
The Palestinians would be allowed to deliver their letter of request Friday to the United Nations, but the Palestinians would not act on it for a year or would withdraw it at a later point. That would allow Abbas to save face and prevent an embarrassing defeat that might empower his party's rival faction, Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.
The Palestinians could also go to the UN General Assembly, where they have overwhelming support, but would have to seek instead some form of intermediate upgrade that would stop short of a full recognition of statehood.
And the quartet, with Israel and the Palestinians' advance approval, would give the two sides a year to reach a framework agreement, based on Obama's vision of borders fashioned from Israel's pre-1967 boundary, with agreed land swaps. The statement would also endorse the idea of "two states for two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian," which would be a slightly amended version of Israel's demand for recognition specifically as a "Jewish state."
Neither side seemed willing to make such a dramatic concession, officials said. There was also some disagreement among the quartet with Russia expressing its displeasure with a number of EU and U.S. supported ideas, they said. And they cautioned that the agreement could cause the same conundrum at next year's UN General Assembly meeting if talks fail to advance by then.
Obama met on Tuesday with Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey, once a close regional partner of Israel but lately an increasingly vociferous critic, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to speak later with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. The moves drew fire from leading Republican presidential hopefuls, including Mitt Romney, who claimed Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus."