Palestinians' UN bid is met with Israeli peace talk offer

The US says it will veto full Palestinian membership but to do so poses serious dangers for America in the Middle East

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic efforts to restart Middle East peace talks intensified last night as world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly, with the Israeli Prime Minister saying he was willing to have a face-to-face meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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The chances of success were no clearer, but there was growing urgency as Palestinians showed no sign of backing down from their bid to seek full membership of the UN on Friday.

The demand by the Israeli Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Mr Abbas begin "direct negotiations in New York and continue them in Jerusalem and Ramallah" was met with a cool initial response from the opposite side, since it came with no indication that the Israelis were going to move on any of the Palestinians' key demands. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said there had been no progress either in talks within the "quartet" of Middle East negotiators – the US, the European Union, the UN and Russia – about a common policy on the Palestinian UN application.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama came under intense domestic pressure from his potential opponents in next year's presidential election to concede no ground to the Palestinians. The US has said it will veto full membership of the UN for the Palestinians, but to do so poses serious dangers for America in the Middle East. It could be outvoted in a poll of the full General Assembly, which could grant the Palestinian Authority an upgrade from its current status as a permanent observer and hand it a significant diplomatic victory.

The Palestinians said last night they were confident a majority of the Security Council – at least nine of the 15 members – would vote in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Before leaving for New York, Mr Netanyahu told a gathering of his Likud party that "the path to peace comes through negotiations and not through unilateral acts. The way to get to the end of negotiations is to start them and stick with them," he said. "That's what Israel wanted to do, but the Palestinians refused. There is a growing understanding in the world about what has to be done before a state is created. That's what I will speak about in the UN."

His suggestion of face-to-face talks was met by a public reiteration of Palestinian preconditions from the Authority's Foreign Minister, Riad al-Malki. He said Israel must halt settlement building on occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, and agree to a timeframe for talks and international guarantees to aid their progress.

Diplomatic efforts at the UN continued. Mr Hague told reporters that the objective of the quartet was to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, as he headed into a meeting with Mr Abbas. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said in a radio interview yesterday that "the status quo is untenable. The only way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem is direct negotiations."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was still time to head off a confrontation when Mr Abbas addresses the General Assembly on Friday, but there was another example of the pressures on the Obama administration when Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry made his own speech in New York in support of Israel.

"We would not be here today at this very precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous," he said.

Britain faces tough decision on statehood amid rumours of coalition split

Britain faces a "difficult judgement" over whether to support Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this week, Nick Clegg said yesterday, while the Government is yet to declare a position regarding the bid.

The Deputy Prime Minister is rumoured to be pushing for firmer support for the application, amid reports of a Coalition split on the issue. Mr Clegg said there had been "debates" within Government over the position to adopt but said it would be unhelpful to air them in public.

It remains unclear which way Britain will vote at the UN, just days before the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is set to ask the General Assembly to vote on granting Palestinian statehood.

David Cameron warned in May that he would support a Palestinian bid at the UN if Israel declined to take part in substantive peace negotiations. The Prime Minister has even buried political loyalties and sought advice in secret on how to break the deadlock from Tony Blair, the current Middle East peace envoy.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has said that the Labour Party backs the bid, and he has written to the Foreign Secretary William Hague urging him to vote in favour of the resolution. Yesterday Mr Hague said the "only way forward" was a return to the negotiating table.