Long-shot scenario to avoid Mideast diplomatic clash
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A scenario is emerging that might prevent an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations this week but analysts and officials say it will require near perfect timing and diplomacy to pull it off.
Under the scenario, described by people familiar with the diplomacy, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would submit a letter seeking full U.N. membership on Friday and the U.N. Security Council will put off action on it, perhaps for weeks.
The so-called Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- would then issue a finely-balanced statement giving each side enough political cover to agree to resume peace talks, possibly within weeks.
The idea is to prevent action -- such as a Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood that is bound to fail or a vote in the General Assembly likely to embarrass, isolate and anger Israel -- that will make resuming peace talks even harder.
The problem is that the delicate choreography needed could be tripped up by myriad factors, from violence on the ground to diplomats' failure to craft a statement that will coax both sides back into talks that broke off nearly a year ago.
"It's kind of the only scenario that stops the train wreck," said Daniel Kurtzer of Princeton University, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.
"In any dynamic in which there are a lot of moving parts, they all have to move in harmony and in sync for the scenario to play out," he added. "This one has so many moving parts to it that you have to think about the spoilers."
Western diplomats appear resigned to the idea that Abbas will give U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a letter on Friday seeking full membership, a step he vowed to take in a September 16 speech in Ramallah and one that may allow him to save face.
Under U.N. rules, Ban must immediately put application before Security Council members.
The current president of the Security Council, Lebanese U.N. Ambassador Nawaf Salam, would then establish a committee to review and assess the application. Standard practice is to complete this within 35 days, but this can be waived.
In theory, this would prevent an immediate vote, give more time for diplomacy to get the two sides back into talks, avoid an immediate Palestinian defeat if the United States carries out its threat to veto the application, and spare Washington the anger of Arab allies at seeing it side with Israel again.
However, pitfalls abound.
Where the expectation had previously been that a Quartet statement might be able to avert such action, one diplomat said that it now could be a sort of "safety net" to contain any diplomatic damage and perhaps pave a way back to peace talks.
The most obvious risk is that the Quartet may fail to agree on a statement, let alone one acceptable to the Israelis and Palestinians.
Diplomats have tried for months to address the core issues in the conflict -- including borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements -- in a statement offering guidelines for talks.
Threading the needle, however, will not be easy and the Quartet could easily fall short as it did in July, when its foreign ministers met but could not agree on the language.
Another potential pitfall is Palestinian public opinion.
It is possible that the Palestinians may not be satisfied with Abbas simply requesting full membership from the Security Council, where it faces a certain U.S. veto, and may clamor for the matter to go to the full U.N. General Assembly.
Western diplomats said they were heartened that Abbas, in his September 16 speech, emphasized going to the Security Council but said little about the alternative route of seeking less than full membership via a General Assembly vote.
One advantage of seeking upgraded status as a "non-member state" is that it would require only a simple majority of the 193-nation General Assembly, not a two-thirds majority necessary for full statehood.
This status would likely allow the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court and pursue criminal cases against Israel over its partial blockade of the Gaza Strip, its construction of Jewish settlements and its December 2008 to January 2009 war against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
Such status therefore gives the Palestinians something they have seldom enjoyed during the conflict -- leverage over Israel that comes from something other than the threat of violence.
For Abbas, taking the issue to the Security Council, even if it lingers there, preserves some leverage because he retains the ability to go to the General Assembly in the future. However, it may not be enough for the Palestinian public,
"The idea that it allows Abbas to save enough face is really open to question because this may end up being too transparent a capitulation," said Daniel Levy, an analyst with the Centre for American Progress in Washington. "What might blow it up is if he is seen as going home empty-handed."
An Arab diplomat echoed this view.
"This approach may ... spare the United States the embarrassment of a veto in the Security Council but it is very unlikely to lead to a resumption of negotiations," said the Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"He will walk away with probably much less than what he promised. He will have no recognition of statehood at the U.N. He will in all likelihood have a very weak statement from the Quartet," he added. "If this is meant to give him cover, it is going to be very, very thin."
U.S. President Barack Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday morning and he was due to see Abbas later in the day. In a speech before the General Assembly, Obama urged the Palestinians not to take the matter to the U.N. and he put the onus on both sides break a year-long impasse on peace talks.
According to the current schedule, Abbas is due to speak there at around noon on Friday and, after remarks by the leaders of Japan and Bhutan, to be followed by Netanyahu.
Even if all the diplomacy has been orchestrated by then, another danger is that either one may say something in his speech to antagonize the other and upset the apple cart.
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