The UN General Assembly is poised to recognise Palestine as a "non-member observer state" on Thursday, a move that will strengthen the Palestinians legal basis for pursuing possible war-crimes prosecutions against Israeli troops and set up a showdown with the United States and Israel.
Supporters hope the vote will provide a desperately needed political boost to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party has been eclipsed in recent weeks by rival Hamas, the militant movement whose fortunes have risen with those of its Islamist allies in Egypt and elsewhere.
The Palestinians are expected to win the Thursday vote by an overwhelming margin, according to U.N. diplomats. To date, 132 countries have recognized the state of Palestine.
"I think that the great majority of nations will vote with us because there is a global consensus on the two-state solution," said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians' U.N. representative, adding that 60 states have agreed to co-sponsor the resolution.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country would back the Palestinian quest, telling the French parliament on Tuesday that Paris would support a resolution recognizing Palestine as an observer state, the same status accorded to the Vatican.
The vote is likely to roil U.N. diplomatic waters and highlight a rift in Europe over Palestinian statehood. It is also likely to provoke a diplomatic backlash from Israel and concern in Washington.
"We fear Abbas is heading for a dangerous Pyrrhic victory," said a senior European diplomat. "If the Palestinians believe it will push the Israelis into a negotiation, we don't believe that. It might backfire for Abbas."
The Obama administration has struggled to balance its support for Palestinian statehood and its endorsement of the Palestinian Authority's position as the legitimate Palestinian leader while opposing the push for U.N. recognition. U.S. officials say a negotiated settlement with Israel is the only way to establish a Palestinian state.
The position of the Palestinian Authority has been undermined by the recent clashes between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. The cease-fire reached after eight days of fighting has been viewed as a victory for Hamas in many quarters, and the group is now negotiating with Israel through Egypt. The Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party, on the other hand, were sidelined and appeared almost powerless.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled last week to the West Bank city of Ramallah to see Abbas as part of efforts to secure the truce in Gaza, but the trip was partly a symbolic gesture and partly a last effort to persuade him not to go to the United Nations.
"We've obviously been very clear that we do not think that this step is going to bring the Palestinian people any closer to a state, that we think it is a mistake, that we oppose it, that we will oppose it," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "The secretary was very clear with President Abbas . . . that our position on this has not changed, and we are continuing to make that clear, not only directly to President Abbas and the Palestinians, but also to all of our U.N. partners, as well."
Nuland would not say whether the United States has swayed any other nations. "We're going to oppose it because we think that it's the wrong move," she said. "We think it makes other steps that might improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis harder. Other countries will make their own decision."
She would not address reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the United States and Israel are meeting secretly this week to discuss ways to blunt the effect of the vote. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly wanted the Obama administration to head off the U.N. action.
More than a year ago, a Palestinian bid to gain recognition as a U.N. member state faltered in the face of U.S. opposition within the Security Council.
The draft resolution to be put for a vote Thursday "decides to accord to Palestine Non-member Observer State status in the United Nations."
Although the vote would not confer the status of a full-fledged member, it could pave the way for admission in other international organizations, including the International Criminal Court, that do not require parties to be full-fledged members of the United Nations.
Mansour said that the Palestinians don't have an immediate plan to pursue international prosecution of Israelis, but that they want to keep the option open.
"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including to the ICC," he told reporters. " But at the same time, it is not fair for us to tie our own hands of all the possibilities that could be available to us."
In January 2009, the Palestinians appealed to the Hague-based criminal court to open an investigation into Israeli conduct during a three-week operation in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008. Earlier this year, the court's former prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he lacked the authority to rule on the decision.
Britain, France and other European powers have privately sought to persuade the Palestinians to include language in the resolution explicitly ruling out any intention to pursue war-crimes prosecutions against Israeli troops.
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Gearan reported from Washington.