UNITED NATIONS Diplomats scrambled on Thursday to head off a clash over Palestinian plans to seek full U.N. recognition with little visible sign of progress and a deadline less than 24 hours away.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad briefly seized the spotlight at the United Nations General Assembly, accusing the United States of using the September 11, 2001, attacks as a pretext for attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan and condemning western support for Zionism.
But attention focussed on the crisis transfixing this year's U.N. meeting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ready to submit his application to the U.N. Security Council on Friday despite pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama to forgo the U.N. option and resume direct talks with Israel.
Obama's meetings with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ended with no breakthrough, illustrating stark new limits of U.S. influence over a process spinning in unpredictable directions.
Obama, whose personal efforts to restart the Middle East peace process have proved fruitless, on Wednesday declared that direct talks were the only path to Palestinian statehood, underscoring unbending U.S. opposition to the U.N. plan.
Obama said the United States will veto any Palestinian move in the Security Council -- a step that would isolate Washington with its ally Israel at a moment of unprecedented political turmoil across the region.
"We understand that the Palestinian people feel like they have waited very long, and far too long, to have their own state. We want to help them achieve that state as quickly as possible," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told U.S. NPR radio.
"But the bottom line is there's no way to accomplish that short of the two sides coming back to the negotiating table," Rice said, calling the Palestinian U.N. bid "unwise and counterproductive."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had her own meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu, said the United States would continue to push for a durable, negotiated peace.
"Regardless of what happens tomorrow in the United Nations, we remain focussed on the day after," Clinton told reporters.
ON THE GROUND REALITIES
Whatever happens at the United Nations, Palestinians will remain under Israeli occupation and any nominal state would lack recognized borders or real independence and sovereignty.
The cash-strapped Palestinians face their own political divisions, and may also incur financial retribution from Israel and the United States that could hobble their efforts to build the framework of government for their homeland.
But in the West Bank, Palestinians have rallied this week to support the U.N. plan, with many expressing anger and disappointment over two decades of failed U.S. policy peace policy. [ID:nL5E7KM3AB]
At the United Nations, diplomats are focussed on several scenarios which they hope may contain the damage once Abbas makes his application, as most expect he will. [ID:nS1E78J1E9]
The Security Council could delay action on Abbas' request, giving the mediating "Quartet" -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- more time to craft a declaration that could coax the two sides back to the table.
But the Quartet may be unable to agree on a statement that could satisfy both Israel and the Palestinians, which remain divided on core issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements.
A senior U.S. official said Quartet envoys met for several hours on Thursday.
Another option, advanced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would see the Palestinians go to the General Assembly, which could vote to upgrade the Palestinians from an "entity" to a "non-member state" while reviving direct peace talks.
Sarkozy's plan calls for talks to begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security within six months and a final peace agreement within a year. [ID:nS1E78K11D]
The General Assembly route would require only a simple majority of the 193-nation body, not a two-thirds majority necessary for full statehood.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the Palestinians will insist on the right to haul the Israeli government or its officials before war-crimes tribunals or sue them in other global venues -- something Israel opposes.
The Palestinians have pledged to press the Security Council bid while keeping the General Assembly option open.
Iran's Ahmadinejad -- who arrived in New York this year weakened by factional infighting at home -- accused Western powers of a variety of misdeeds and again questioned the September 11, 2001, attacks as "mysterious."
In what has become a regular piece of political theatre, U.S. and other Western delegations walked out of the General Assembly hall during his speech.
Although he did not mention Tehran's disputed nuclear program in his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad said later that Iran would stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium if it is guaranteed fuel for a medical research reactor, seeking to revive a fuel swap deal that fell apart in 2009.
"Any time they can guarantee us this sale ... we will stop 20 percent enrichment," he told reporters, although deep Western scepticism over Iran's nuclear intentions would likely slow any possible resumption of talks.
The Iranian leader, who in the past has called Israel a "tumour" that must be wiped from the map, made only a passing reference to the Palestinian issue in his U.N. speech and had no comment on the Palestinians' bid for U.N. recognition.