Israel, U.S. Hold Secret Talks on Softening Palestinian Authority's UN Bid

Knowing that Abbas is determined to complete the UN process, the U.S. tells Israel it will try to soften the wording, which Netanyahu supports, official says.

Israel is negotiating with the United States over the wording of the proposal at the UN General Assembly Thursday that would upgrade the Palestinians to observer status.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's representative at the talks, Isaac Molho, left for Washington unannounced on Sunday to meet with senior White House and State Department officials.

In recent weeks Israel has declared that it objects to any wording the Palestinians would bring for a vote at the General Assembly. Israel has refused to negotiate over the proposal's wording and has even asked the United States and EU countries not to enter talks on the matter. Rather, it wants them to put pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to postpone the bid.

A senior Israeli official noted that in recent days senior U.S. officials told Netanyahu and his advisers that Abbas is determined to complete the UN process and that they see no way to block a vote. The U.S. administration says it will try to soften the wording, in an attempt at damage limitation.

According to the senior Israeli official, Netanyahu has changed his stance and is supporting the American effort to soften the wording. Molho is working with senior Obama administration officials on changes Israel wants inserted before the assembly votes on the text. But it is unclear enough time remains to graft in the changes.

Israel wants clauses stating that the Palestinians will not ask to be accepted as members of the International Criminal Court in the Hague; membership would let the Palestinians push criminal charges against Israelis. Also, Israel wants a clause stressing that this is a symbolic decision that grants no sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem.

Israel also wants any decision to include a Palestinian commitment to renewing direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions.

Molho's talks in Washington have also helped coordinate the Israeli and American reactions to the Palestinian move. On Friday, Haaretz reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked Netanyahu not to take punitive steps that could cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Israel seeks maximum coordination with the United States to prevent tension with Washington over the Palestinian issue following the vote.

On Monday, Netanyahu convened the forum of nine senior ministers to discuss the Israeli reaction to the Palestinians' move at the United Nations.

Immediately after the vote Israel will introduce sanctions against the Palestinians but will not take irreversible steps and will not act to bring down the PA as demanded by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Only if the Palestinians use the UN decision to advance moves at the International Criminal Court will Israel consider more drastic steps.

"We have to be clever, not just right," the senior official said. "There will be measures in reaction, but they will be relatively moderate."

The official noted that at present Israel plans to freeze the tax revenues it collects for the PA. This is a similar move to one taken by the Obama administration under a law that passed about a year ago.

But this is a reversible step, especially in light of the fear that a tax-revenue freeze will not allow members of the Palestinian security apparatus to be paid, which could hamper its operations and increase the tension in the West Bank.

Israel also intends to announce the construction of hundreds of housing units in West Bank settlements and to submit for approval sections of retired Justice Edmond Levy's report on the outposts that recommended easing planning and building processes in the settlements and steps to authorize illegal outposts.