Senior U.S. envoys will visit the Middle East this week to try to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and avert a Palestinian bid for UN membership, he United States said on Tuesday.
The mission by U.S. Middle East peace envoy David Hale and senior White House aide Dennis Ross appears to be a last-ditch push to dissuade the Palestinians from seeking to upgrade their UN status this month, a step Israel strongly opposes.
The United States and Israel believe the Palestinians should try to establish a state through direct peace talk, which broke down nearly a year ago, and they that action at the United Nations will make it harder to resume negotiations.
"The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties and the route to that lies in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, not in New York," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters.
"Our hope is that we get the parties back into a frame of mind and a process where they will actually begin negotiating again," she added.
Her reference to Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its eternal and indivisible capital, may anger Palestinians, who want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem. Ramallah is the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.
Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital has not been recognized internationally and the United States has maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv for years to avoid appearing to prejudge the issue.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is scrambling to head off a Palestinian plan to seek full United Nations membership during the UN General Assembly session that begins on Monday but critics argue that its push may come too late.
Hale and Ross held talks in the region with both sides last week and appear to make no headway to solve the dispute.
Middle East analysts say there is little chance of this any time soon and some administration critics argued that the United States had left it too late to find a diplomatic solution before the UN General Assembly.
"For all of these months there has been a leadership vacuum from the White House," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a frequent critic of the administration.
The last round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down nearly a year ago with the expiration of a 10-month partial Israeli moratorium on Jewish settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for their state.
Israel sees the Palestinian bid as an effort to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state and to extend the conflict into new arenas such as the International Criminal Court.
Speaking to Reuters after news of the U.S. mission broke, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said the plan was still to seek full membership for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Earlier, Shtayyeh said the Palestinian leadership would listen to any proposals but suggested the current U.S. push had come too late.
"We are open-minded to any proposal. And we are ready to engage with any proposal. But this is not a step to really stop us from going to the United Nations," he added. "If the whole idea of a proposal is to engage peacefully then you don't really bring it in the last five minutes of the hour."
The Palestinians are now UN observers without voting rights. To become a full member, their bid would have to be approved by the UN Security Council, where the United States has said it will veto it.
Diplomats have said it is not clear what the Palestinians will do when the UN General Assembly opens.
Rather than seeking full U.N. membership for a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, they could seek status as a "non-member state," which would require a simple majority of the 193-nation assembly. The United States, however, said it would not favor this model either.
Another possibility would be to propose a resolution to the General Assembly that might give greater backing to their desire for a state but not actually call for upgrading the Palestinians status at the United Nations.
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