Barack Obama
Barack Obama Photo by Reuters
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Away from the headlines, Palestinians have been trying to advance their statehood agenda in small but symbolic ways in United Nations agencies that fall off the radar for most people.

But even on the outer reaches of the sprawling UN system, their efforts have been blocked by a United States resolved not to display the slightest tilt toward Palestinians as it tries to act as honest broker in their halting peace talks with Israel.

Many Israelis suspect President Barack Obama is bent on establishing a Palestinian state at any cost. But in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinians' limited self-rule in the West Bank, they think he's not as serious about it as he sounds.

"We could have gone to voting and got what we wanted," said Sulaiman Zuhairi, a member ofthe Palestinian delegation last month at a meeting in Mexico of the International Telecommunications Union.

He tabled a motion that would have secured them the rights of a member state, and after months of diplomatic preparation, it was endorsed by around 50 countries and was on track to pass with the backing of an additional 40 states.

"We asked for the rights and privileges of a state but without being a member state. Let them call us whatever they want, but I wanted all the rights of a member state," he said.

There were U.S. objections, however, and the Palestinians backed down, fearing the consequences of rocking the boat, which Zuhairi did not detail.

There was no comment from the U.S. State Department on his account. But the U.S. objections were consistent with a long-standing policy that treats the stateless Palestinians as no more than an observer member of the United Nations.

The Palestinians had dared to hope for more from an administration publicly committed to their statehood, and their president, Mahmoud Abbas, is blunt about his disappointment.

In a Nov. 11 speech, he was unusually candid in expressing his frustration with the U.S. approach, focusing on Washington's opposition to the idea of the Palestinians seeking U.N. Security Council support for the establishment of their state.

He reminded Obama that Palestinian statehood "is a promise and a debt around your neck and it must be realised", but seemed to dilute expectations when he said U.S. support for Palestinian statehood was "still at the stage of slogans".

Obama's peace envoy, George Mitchell, has made it plain on every visit to the region that Washington is relying on Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from any unilateral steps that could harm negotiations on the core issues.

That includes Palestinian efforts to force the diplomatic agenda. Palestinian officials say even small steps in the obscure UN agencies have been quashed as a potentially harmful to the carefully balanced twin-track policy.

When the Palestinians in September made their first bid for full access to the UNESCO committee where states may seek the return of antiquities, their representative Hamdan Taha hoped to use the body to pursue the recovery of tens of thousands of artifacts removed during the Israeli occupation.

Their proposal would have allowed the Palestinians and the Vatican, which both have observer status, to table their concerns in the same way as member states, said Taha.

But the U.S. representative alone opposed the idea, he said.

"In the U.S. intervention, it was noted that the change Palestine had demanded introduced a new element. It wasn't a complete rejection, but an attempt to delay the discussion."

The Palestinian delegation was told the United States had opposed the amendment out of fear it could undermine Washington's attempts to revive the peace talks, Taha said.

"They did not have a green light."