The Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations Security Council in the coming days to declare Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal and demand a halt to their construction, officials said on Wednesday, in a high stakes gamble aimed at increasing pressure on Israel.
A draft of the resolution obtained by The Associated Press calls the settlements obstacles to peace but does not ask for sanctions against Israel or any other concrete action.
This would be a key element in a Palestinian campaign to rally international support for independence, even without a peace deal. Officials said the strategy reflects their disillusionment with sputtering U.S. peace efforts and Palestinian distrust of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The move - largely aimed at seeking U.S. support - bears huge risks.
The U.S. has already balked at the resolution and might veto it. Even a U.S. abstention, a more likely option, would greatly diminish the resolution's significance.
Israel blasted the measure as an effort to avoid negotiations.
The White House launched the latest round of peace talks on Sept. 2, but they broke down just three weeks later with the expiration of a 10-month Israeli freeze on West Bank settlement construction.
The Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel builds homes for Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - lands that were captured by Israel from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967 and are claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Netanyahu has declined to renew the settlement freeze but says he would discuss all issues in direct negotiations. American mediators have been unable to find a compromise to restart the talks, leading the Palestinians to consider alternative strategies.
Palestinian officials said their resolution would be presented to the Security Council in early January.
According to the draft obtained by the AP, it will ask the 15-member council, whose decisions are considered legally binding in international law, to declare settlements "a major obstacle to the achievement of peace" and to ensure that Israel "completely ceases all settlement activity," without saying how.
The draft, dated Dec. 21, notably does not call for sanctions, instead urging both sides to continue negotiations toward a peace deal. One senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the process is ongoing, said the conciliatory language was added in hopes of winning U.S. support.
The Palestinian proposal received a cool reception in Washington. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. agrees that settlement construction is "corrosive" to peace efforts, but believes negotiations are the only way to peace.
"We therefore consistently oppose any attempt to take final status issues to the (Security) Council," he said, "as such efforts do not move us closer to our goal of two states living side by side in peace and security."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinian strategy hinders peace efforts.
"By choosing unilateralism over direct talks, the Palestinians are declaring that they renounce peace altogether," he said. "They are trying everything except to talk."
Palestinian officials acknowledge that such moves will change little on the ground. Instead, they want the world to send a tough message to Netanyahu, who they believe is not serious about pursuing peace.
Israel began settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem soon after the Six-Day War. Today, some 300,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements across the West Bank.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem immediately after the Six-Day War and does not consider construction there settlement activity. The annexation is not internationally recognized. Some 180,000 Israelis now live in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to found a future capital.
This would not be the first time the UN Security Council has dealt with this issue.
At least seven Security Council resolutions between 1979 and 2008 condemned the settlements directly or indirectly. The U.S. voted in favour of three of them and abstained on the others.
The Palestinian representative at the UN, Riyad Mansour, said the new resolution resembles previous ones, but that the timing is important.
"The entire world knows that the settlements are the major obstacle before the a peace deal," he said. "This resolution doesn't include sanctions, but it would form political pressure on Israel to implement the two-state solution."
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