Middle East

MELISSA BLOCK, host: The Obama administration is scrambling to head off what it fears will be a diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations next week. Palestinians plan to seek U.N. membership as a state. If the U.S. follows through on its promise to veto the plan in the Security Council, the Palestinians say they will go to the General Assembly to upgrade their status. As NPR's Michele Keleman reports, U.S. officials worry that even that more symbolic vote is dangerous.

MICHELE KELEMAN: When talking about their bid to have a state recognized at the U.N., Palestinians are quick to recall what President Obama told the world body one year ago, when he launched peace talks that he hoped would finally resolve the conflict.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's time we should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.

KELEMAN: The talks broke down quickly over the issue of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. And now, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is spending much of her time explaining why member states should not support a Palestinian statehood vote.

SUSAN RICE: As a practical matter, as a matter of reality and fact, there is no way to accomplish the goal absent direct negotiations. There's just no way. You can pass any numbers of pieces of paper at the United Nations, it's not going to create a state. There won't be defined borders, there won't be agreement on who's the population, there won't be any of the fundamental issues that must be resolved, resolved.

KELEMAN: Palestinians say going to the U.N. will give them a stronger hand should negotiations ever resume. But Ambassador Rice told a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor that the Palestinian move is a, quote, "dangerous diversion" with real-world consequences.

RICE: This is not, you know, one day of hoo-ha and celebration in the General Assembly or the Security Council, and then everybody goes home.

KELEMAN: Leading members of Congress accuse the Palestinians of trying to delegitimize Israel. Lawmakers are threatening to cut U.S. aid to Palestinians and stop funding U.N. agencies that upgrade the status of Palestinians. A top Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi, says that is cause for concern.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Yeah, we are worried, but we are not as worried as we are about losing the rest of our land and about having Israel destroy the chances of peace by destroying the two-state solution, which is what it's doing with American cover.

KELEMAN: She says the U.S. failed to revive serious negotiations with a clear timeframe and goals. So, now the Palestinians are taking what Ashrawi describes as a legal, responsible path at the U.N. One option is to get a General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinian status from non-member entity to non-member state, much like the Vatican.

ASHRAWI: If we get an upgrade in our status to a non-member state, that would, first of all, give us access to all U.N. institutions, organizations and agencies, including, of course, the judicial agencies for legal accountability.

KELEMAN: In other words, challenging Israel's activities in the occupied territories. Israel has warned that the Palestinians are putting at risk security and economic agreements, but most Palestinians seem undeterred. A prominent businessman, Nafez Husseini, told the New America Foundation last week that Palestinians have spent the past couple of years getting ready for statehood and developing the economy.

NAFEZ HUSSEINI: Our aspiration is not just for a good economic prosperity. Our aspiration is for freedom, for statehood, for showing the world what we can do as a nation. The Palestinians are known to be the builders of the Arab Gulf, and we'd like to build our own homes, as well. It is time. We are ready for statehood.

KELEMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the road to a Palestinian state does not go through New York, though. She's sending two U.S. officials back to the region to once again try to revive negotiations and head off a diplomatic showdown next week. Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington.

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