UK and France vow to halt Palestinian UN bid

Numerous abstentions from Security Council vote could force the 'Vatican option'

Britain, France and Colombia plan to abstain from a UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood, in a setback to efforts to secure international support for the Palestinian bid.

The US has pledged to veto the Palestinian attempt if it is brought to the vote in the 15-member council, but the Palestinians had hoped to gather a nine-vote majority, forcing America to cast its veto, which would award the Palestinians a moral victory.

The Palestinians insist that the current paradigm for peace talks has broken down and that it is time to try something new. Israel, which has lobbied hard against the statehood bid, claims the Palestinians are seeking to obtain recognition without negotiations.

But the Palestinians potentially face an embarrassing showdown in the UN if they push ahead with a vote, because it now remains uncertain whether they can muster the nine votes.

Britain, France and Colombia reportedly informed the Security Council in a closed-door session late on Thursday that they would abstain if a vote came to pass. France and Britain have been widely expected to abstain, but the confirmation of this will nevertheless buoy Israel, which is hoping to win support from the so-called moral majority at the UN. A Foreign Office source confirmed Britain's intention to abstain, saying that a failed bid would push moribund peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis further away.

France, which voted this week in favour of Palestine joining Unesco, the UN's cultural body, also said yesterday that it had "no choice" but to abstain because the bid would not pass in the face of US resistance.

"While the region is seeing upheavals, the legitimacy of the Palestinian desire for a state is indisputable," said Romain Nadal, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry. "The Palestinian demand, however, has no chance of achieving anything at the Security Council, notably because of [America's] stated opposition."

The Palestinians are now scrambling to secure support that they had once believed was assured. Even when President Barack Obama pledged in May to block the UN bid, the Palestinians had still hoped for a 14-1 majority, similar to how the council voted on settlements earlier this year, which would leave Washington humiliated in taking a position that isolated it from international opinion.

UN envoys reportedly believe that the Palestinians can secure only eight votes. Russia, China, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon and India reportedly support the bid, while Gabon and Nigeria, which have not publicised their positions, are also expected to vote in favour. The US will oppose it, while Britain, France and Colombia would abstain. Germany, Portugal and Bosnia have not clarified their positions, but are also expected to abstain.

If the bid fails, the Palestinians still have the "Vatican option", where they can seek the status of a non-member "observer state" from the General Assembly, where they command a built-in majority. The French, who have sought a mediation role in the conflict, have repeatedly said they would support this route, which is seen as a first step towards full membership.

But the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Malki, appeared to reject that option late on Thursday. "We do not want, after all of these struggles, sacrifices, and efforts by the entire Palestinian people, to accept an observer state in the United Nations," he said. "We will not accept less than we deserve: a full member state."

Israelis board boats running Gaza blockade

The Israeli navy boarded two vessels carrying pro-Palestinian activists as they attempted to run the blockade of the Gaza Strip yesterday. The Israeli military said no activists were hurt as commandos boarded the vessels after they failed to heed calls to turn around.

It was the latest in a series of failed attempts by protesters to reach Gaza and raise international awareness of Israel's land and naval blockade, which prevents the free passage of people and goods.

The boats were towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the crew and 27 passengers were expected to be taken into custody for questioning.

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