Peace no closer as Palestinians ask U.N. for state

UNITED NATIONS Sat Sep 24, 2011 4:59am IST

Palestinians attend a public screening of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the United Nations, in the West Bank city of Hebron September 23, 2011. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Palestinians attend a public screening of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the United Nations, in the West Bank city of Hebron September 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A hasty attempt by big powers to refloat Middle East talks -- and spare the United States the embarrassment of vetoing a Palestinian demand for United Nations recognition of a state -- looks doomed.

Ending six decades of Arab-Israeli conflict may be more urgent than ever, as Arab uprisings against autocratic leaders reshape the Middle East and deepen Israel's isolation, but it is even harder to discern how to shift entrenched positions.

Defying U.S. pressure and Israeli wrath, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted his statehood request to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, prompting a quartet of Middle East mediators to scramble out a one-year timeline for peace.

But if decades of failed talks are any guide, this deadline will prove to be another mirage, if negotiations resume at all.

The gulf between Israel and the Palestinians on borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem looks unbridgeable.

And any chance of the United States leaning on its Israeli ally for concessions seems remote, with President Barack Obama heading into a bruising battle for re-election next year.

For different reasons, Israelis and Palestinians say this week's events will bring peace no closer.

"We don't care what they're up to at the U.N. We have the bible, which says the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people," said Israeli settler Meir Bartler, 25.

Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Islamist Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip, derided Abbas for "begging" the United Nations for a state, rather than fighting for one.

Such views from hardliners reflect the scale of the task awaiting anyone seeking a two-state solution -- Palestine alongside Israel -- that may already be out of reach.

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas said Israel's expansion of settlements in occupied territory "will destroy the chances of achieving a two-state solution."

No peace talks could start, he said, until all settlement activity -- dear to Netanyahu's rightwing coalition -- ceased.

Netanyahu, determined to keep the main West Bank settlement blocs as well as east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their capital, said Israel's security needs are paramount.

PEACE FIRST, THEN STATE

"The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state," he told the assembly, casting scorn on the United Nations as a "theater of the absurd" in which Israel is pilloried like no other country on the planet.

Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian analyst, said the speeches by Abbas and Netanyahu had made it harder to restart negotiations, adding that Abbas had "toughened his commitment to his conditions, and these are not acceptable to Israel."

Their minds concentrated by Abbas' insistence on taking his quest for a state to the Security Council, the Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations -- produced a call for renewed talks to lead to a peace deal within a year.

It sounds familiar. U.S. President George W. Bush set a one-year deadline in 2007. Obama said a year ago he hoped a Palestinian state would be ready to join the United Nations by this time.

But Obama has nothing to show for his efforts and is now further constrained by a need to prove his pro-Israel credentials against fierce Republican critics at home.

"The Palestinian leadership is trying to seize statehood on their own terms while refusing to negotiate directly with Israel," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in response to Abbas' speech.

"It finds fertile ground among the rogue regimes that have hijacked the United Nations."

While Obama protects his flank from Israel's powerful U.S. supporters, he is also desperate to avoid having to veto the Palestinian request to the Security Council due to the damage this would inflict on waning U.S. prestige in the Middle East.

Emad Gad, at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said a U.S. veto could trigger protests and attacks on U.S. facilities in the region. "It would also end what credibility Obama has left in the Middle East."

Palestinians and many others already contrast Obama's support for Arab uprisings for freedom and justice with what they view as his backtracking on Palestinian aspirations.

"When it comes to Palestinians suffering from an oppressive foreign military occupation, somehow these principles do not apply. They only apply when Arabs rebel against their own oppressive regime," Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said.

"The real battlefield is not at the U.N.," said Avraham Binyamin, a spokesman for Yitzhar settlement near Nablus.

"It's here on the ground and one hopes the government and security forces will understand, just as the Arabs and settlers have, that any talk of compromise is destined to fail."

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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