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Palestinians make risky gambit for statehood

After failed peace talks, the Palestinian Authority is making a push for statehood through an international campaign for membership in the U.N. and a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The U.S. plans to block the effort, calling it a 'strategic mistake.'

March 08, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Ramallah, West Bank — Palestinian leaders are embarking on a risky statehood strategy that will seek to isolate Israel's hawkish government in the international community and rely less on U.S. backing, a move that reflects growing disappointment here with the Obama administration.

The campaign will include U.N. resolutions such as one proposed last month on Israeli settlement building, boycotts against Israeli products, complaints in international courts and attempts to win formal recognition from as many countries as possible, Palestinian officials say.

They hope the effort will culminate this September in an internationally backed proposal for membership in the United Nations or a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, even if it means invoking an obscure rule to circumvent the threat of a U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council.

"We have moved into the internationalization stage," senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said in an interview.

The strategy is a long shot, no question. It risks alienating the United States, a longtime ally of Israel and also the major financial backer of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are certain to fight back and are already dismissing the campaign as a ploy to bypass the negotiating table and unilaterally win statehood.

Yet at the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on expanding settlements in the West Bank has alienated many of Israel's allies over the last year, making the country more vulnerable to attempts to isolate it on the international stage.

The Palestinians' effort may already be drawing a reaction. Under pressure from the international community to show that Israel is making a good-faith effort to restart talks, Netanyahu is considering launching a new initiative in coming weeks that would offer Palestinians a provisional state with temporary borders, Israeli officials say. Palestinians have long rejected such interim peace plans as insufficient.

The biggest move so far in the Palestinian effort was last month's proposed Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal. The Obama administration lobbied hard against the resolution, saying it would only heighten tensions. In a 50-minute phone call, Obama warned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas three times about "repercussions," Abbas aides say.

Abbas defied U.S. pressure, and the U.S. vetoed the measure at the Security Council. But even in defeat, Palestinians said they had crossed a fear barrier of sorts and now feel emboldened to take their campaign to other international forums.

The next step will come later this month, when Palestinians turn to the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprising the U.S., U.N., Russia and European Union. They hope to extract a public commitment for the first time that any peace deal be based on borders that existed before Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Netanyahu, who rejects the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, is reportedly boycotting the meeting.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are circling the globe to make their case. With formal recognition of statehood from 112 countries, including eight South American nations during the last few months, they aim to have as many as 150 countries recognizing them by September, including, they hope, Spain and Britain, said Riad Malki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister.

The goal, Malki said, is to use the international momentum to win membership in the U.N. and then ask the international body to help impose a solution on the parties.

To overcome a possible U.S. veto at the Security Council, Palestinians say they plan to take their case to the U.N. General Assembly, where they believe they would have a majority of the votes. To give the resolution more teeth, they plan to invoke U.N. Resolution 377, which allows the General Assembly to approve binding, albeit harder to enforce, resolutions in the event of deadlock at the Security Council.

"No question we're getting more assertive," Malki said.

A senior Obama administration official, however, called the Palestinian approach "a strategic mistake. It's not going to be a successful strategy. Lining up countries to recognize a Palestinian state is not a substitute for successful negotiation with the Israelis. You're not going to solve the challenge of Jerusalem in Buenos Aires."

It's not the first time Palestinians have turned to the international community, but officials say past efforts have been less effective because peace talks were underway at the same time.

"Whenever there's been an opportunity for serious talks, we've tried our best not to be adversarial in our international actions," Shaath said. "But when you lose hope and nothing serious is happening, that's the time you can become more adversarial."

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