Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused Wednesday to back down from a bid to have the United Nations recognize Palestinian statehood, telling US officials the move did not contradict the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Abbas told visiting US Middle East peace envoy David Hale and US presidential adviser Dennis Ross that the Palestinian approach to the UN would help "overcome the impasse (in the peace process) caused as a result of Israeli intransigence."
Meanwhile, Wendy Sherman, nominated to become the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, reiterated in her Senate nomination hearing on Wednesday the US Administration position in stronger terms than ever before.
"The President has been very clear that a UN resolution to recognize Palestine will not get us to the two-state solution that both parties seek and that most of the world seeks", Sherman said in an exchange with the US Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). "He has been unrelenting in saying that such a resolution is not in our interest or in the interest of the world or the two parties." According to Sherman, "the administration has been very clear as well that if any such resolution were put in front of the Security Council, that we would veto it".
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been in limbo for almost one year, ever since Israel rejected a Palestinian demand to extend a limited, partial freeze on construction at its West Bank settlements.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) intends to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
The United States, Israel and some European Union countries oppose the move, which is likely to be presented to the UN in the second half of this month. Diplomats from the US and the EU have been working to find a formula which would enable the sides to return to negotiations and forestall the UN move.
"We consider the New York course misguided and think it's going to make coming to a lasting peace much harder," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. She characterized the talks between the US officials and Abbas as good, and said the focus was on getting both parties to the negotiating table.
"The only path to two states living side-by-side in peace and security is through negotiations," she said. "You can say whatever you want in the UN, it's not going to lead to that outcome."
Israel argues that a successful Palestinian UN bid would lessen the chances for a negotiated settlement, since the Palestinians would have gained their ultimate objective without having to negotiate and compromise.
A statement from Abbas' office said the Palestinian leader told Hale Wednesday that the PA was prepared to resume peace talks, if Israel accepted the principle of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, and agreed to a total halt to settlement activity.
Although Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has attached conditions, such as demilitarization, and an Israeli military presence along the Jordan river, which Palestinians reject.
Hale and Ross were in Ramallah as part of an apparent last-ditch US effort to dissuade the Palestinians from approaching the UN.
Washington has threatened to take punitive action if the UN bid goes ahead, including suspending funds amounting to 600 million dollars a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials said Wednesday that they did not expect anything new from Hale other than threats and ultimatums.
About two dozen Palestinians, meanwhile, held a protest in the centre of Ramallah Wednesday to protest the visit of Hale and Ross. The protesters called on the Palestinian Authority not to yield to US pressure and to continue pursuing UN recognition and membership.
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