U.N. Bid Could Give Palestinians A Diplomatic Tool

Palestinians say they are undeterred and plan to seek full U.N. membership as a state on territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to present his application when he speaks to the U.N. on Friday. The issue is dominating high level meetings as countries scramble to try to revive a peace process that has failed for decades.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in New York, where President Obama spoke today to the United Nations. This meeting of world leaders is a stressful moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians are close to asking the U.N. to recognize a Palestinian state, a move the United States threatens to veto. Today, President Obama said he supports a Palestinian state, just not this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side.

INSKEEP: The president is under pressure from Arab nations that warn he's supporting Israel too strongly and critics at home who say he's not supporting Israel strongly enough. Today, he spoke of Palestinian aspirations and Israel's security concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Let us be honest with ourselves. Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses.

INSKEEP: And even as world leaders speak in public, negotiations continue in private. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A hotel across the street from the United Nations headquarters has been the scene of frantic diplomacy all week. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been meeting officials from across the globe, as are others in his delegation, including Husam Zomlot, who says the bid for U.N. membership is a fait accompli.

HUSAM ZOMLOT: We are here to shout right where we should shout, right where it all began in the U.N., and to say that our people are absolutely growing impatient. They want a place they can call home. They want some level of freedom and dignity. They want schools and hospitals. They want jobs. They want to move freely. They have, they want an ordinary life. They have never had this ordinary life for the last 63 years; it has been deprived of them, and this is their moment and rendezvous with freedom.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been telling the Palestinians that seeking U.N. membership won't give them a state. For that they need to negotiate with Israel, says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: We continue to believe and are pressing the point that the only way to a two-state solution, which is what we support and want to see happen, is through negotiations.

KELEMEN: But diplomats in the so-called Middle East Quartet - the U.S., United Nations, Russia and the European Union - are struggling to come up with a statement that would lay out the foundations for a new round of peace talks. Israeli spokesman Jonathan Peled says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to meet with Abbas in New York but the Palestinians are balking.

JONATHAN PELED: There's no alternative to direct negotiations, face to face. Instead of seeking a seat at the United Nations, they should be seeking a seat around the negotiating table with Israel.

KELEMEN: Palestinians say they aren't interested in the same old peace process. They see their U.N. membership bid as giving them a new diplomatic tool. If they gain membership - or even an upgrade to their status in the U.N. General Assembly, where the U.S. can't block them, they would gain access to U.N. bodies and international courts to challenge Israeli actions in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Zomlot calls it a deterrent policy, and he says the arm-twisting by Western diplomats and threats by U.S. congressmen to cut off aid to Palestinians won't change their minds about this.

ZOMLOT: We are not after money, we are after jobs. We are not after some international bullying, we are after international partnership.

KELEMEN: No one is expecting any quick action on the Palestinian bid at the U.N.. But Zomlot says he thinks Palestinians have managed to do something already - they've gotten everyone's attention.

ZOMLOT: Everybody is concerned. This is the beauty of our initiative. Our initiative has reinforced Palestine's right on the international arena, in the center of international politics. Everybody is trying, genuinely, to find a solution. And this is our attempt. Our attempt is not to sit on the status quo, but again to find solutions.

KELEMEN: He's urging the U.S. to reconsider its veto threat. Israel and the U.S. are urging the Palestinians to reconsider their U.N. bid, which they say will only raise expectations without resolving the core problems. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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