Cracks appear between Britain and France as Palestine vote looms

Cameron may abstain despite Sarkozy's appeal to back his plan

A Franco-British rift was looming last night after David Cameron failed to line up behind President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to give the Palestinians enhanced status at the United Nations.

The Prime Minister arrived to address the UN General Assembly yesterday under intense pressure from the US to abstain from voting, should the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas press his case for full statehood at the UN today. Mr Cameron launched an impassioned plea for a more activist international community, which steps in to support human rights as it had done in Libya, and he said the Palestinians were "a key part of the Arab Spring" – but he stayed silent on Britain's intentions on the week's most fractious issue.

Diplomatic efforts to avoid a confrontation over Palestinian statehood look set to go down to the wire, with the US effectively ceding control of negotiations over a convoluted compromise plan that had uncertain prospects of success last night.

French diplomats fear Mr Cameron is preparing to yield to US pressure by abstaining in any vote in the UN General Assembly on the French President's proposal to give Vatican-style non-member state status to Palestinians.

The French fear that Mr Cameron is distancing himself from Mr Sarkozy's initiative, launched in his speech to the UN on Wednesday, despite a reported request by the French President to the British Prime Minister to back it.

The British insist that, while tactical differences exist between the two countries, they share an interest in restarting Middle East peace talks. Mr Abbas's intentions, the text of any resolution and the timing of any vote were all still unclear, British sources said. The French are believed to be increasingly sceptical over the attempts by Tony Blair to draft a statement by the international Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia designed to forestall a diplomatic collision over Mr Abbas's UN bid.

No final decision has been taken on the UK's stance, but Mr Cameron appeared sympathetic to US arguments. The Palestinians are believed to have offered to accept a delay in their bid for full statehood if it would allow the resumption of substantial peace talks with the Israelis; with neither side budging on the preconditions for talks there was no sign of a break in the logjam.

Pressure for full recognition was maintained within the General Assembly and on the sidelines. Richard Falk, the UN's Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, called on states to recognise "the reality of Palestinian statehood", saying "the upcoming debate on Palestine's initiative at the UN provides a momentous occasion to respond to a legacy of injustice."

Mr Cameron sidestepped the issue of how Britain will respond if the bid for Palestinian statehood reaches the Security Council. "No resolution can substitute for the political will necessary to bring peace," he said.

The Prime Minister praised the demonstrators of the Arab Spring, called for a resolution threatening sanctions on Syria, and urged a willingness on the part of the UN to intervene to protect human rights. "You can sign every human rights declaration in the world," he said, "but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country then what are those signatures really worth?"

The Palestinian push for statehood within the UN comes after three years of stalled peace talks, and their leaders' assessment that the US will not be able to fulfil its traditional role of peace broker. President Obama's appeal to the Palestinians to drop their bid on Wednesday was quickly pushed aside.

The West walks out

UK delegates walked out of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nations. The two low-level British officials joined other European nations and the United States in the symbolic protest.

Mr Ahmadinejad used his slot at the UN general assembly to list his grievances against Europe and America. He blamed the West for slavery, colonialism, two World Wars, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and the persecution of Palestinians. The United States delegation were the first to walk from the hall.

The tipping point came as the Iranian president talked of "the mysterious September 11 incident" and how it was used to launch an attack on Afghanistan and Iraq. As the US delegates were leaving, he turned to how Europe had used the Jewish holocaust as an excuse to pay a ransom to "zionists".

It prompted a walkout by the UK and several other European countries. PA

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