Israeli official downplays Palestinian U.N. bid

Nov 29, 2012, 5:23 AM EST
Palestinian schoolgirls hold pictures of President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, flowers and olive branches during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012.
(AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's deputy foreign minister downplayed the Palestinians' statehood bid at the United Nations on Thursday, calling their internationally backed quest for global recognition a "virtual move without any substance" that could boomerang against them.

After four years of deadlocked negotiations, the Palestinians plan to ask the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday to recognize a non-member state of Palestine in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The measure, advanced over Israeli and U.S. objections, is expected to pass because the Palestinians have overwhelming support in the assembly and do not face a U.S. veto there as they do in the Security Council.

Backing for the Palestinians' appeal to the U.N. bid came from an unexpected quarter Thursday, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying the Palestinian request "is congruent with the basic concept" of the two-state solution.

"Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it," said, according to The Daily Beast news website. An Olmert spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and their teams conducted peace talks in 2007 through early 2009, but never clinched a deal.

The U.S. and Israel mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote.

In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Abbas, promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the statehood effort. The Palestinian leader refused, according to Abbas' aide Saeb Erekat.

For Abbas, the U.N. bid is crucial if he wants to maintain his leadership and relevance. The Islamic militant group's standing in the Arab world has risen as changes sweep the region, while Abbas' Fatah movement, which governs the West Bank, has been sidelined and marginalized.

Israel, meanwhile, focused on lining up European powers against the bid. But France and other European nations have lined up behind the Palestinians, Germany announced Thursday that it would abstain and Britain indicated it might do the same.

Still, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon insisted Thursday that "the Palestinians will come out the losers in the end."

The statehood bid, he told Army Radio, constitutes a "serious violation" of peace accords between the two sides. Israel will consequently feel itself "less bound" by those agreements, and could respond by withholding funds or security cooperation from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, he said.

"In my opinion, it's a losing proposition," Ayalon said. "It's a virtual move without any substance."

The Israeli government argues that the Palestinians can only win a state through negotiations with Israel and maintains the U.N. appeal violates peace accords by sidestepping talks.

However, Ron Pundak, one of the architects of those mid-1990s accords, told Army Radio on Thursday that the agreements contained no provision blocking such a move.

The Palestinians are turning to the General Assembly a year after they failed to muster Security Council to recognize "Palestine" as a full-fledged U.N. member.

Intense Israeli and U.S. lobbying against that earlier bid buried it. But this year, the Palestinians have been helped by another year of stalemate and perhaps more important, changes in the Arab world that have strengthened the Palestinian Authority's militant Hamas rivals, who oppose negotiations with Israel.

European nations have been more receptive to this latest bid, in the hope of bolstering the authority's moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank. Abbas champions negotiations, but his stature at home has suffered because of his failure to deliver a state through diplomacy during his eight-year tenure.

General Assembly recognition of an independent state of Palestine will not actually deliver a state, end the Israeli occupation or reunify the Palestinians, who are ruled by dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the Palestinians hope U.N. recognition will add weight to their claims for an independent homeland and say they hope to leverage it to resume negotiations.

The Palestinians are going to the U.N. on an emotionally charged date. On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. decided to partition what was then British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, but Arabs rejected it, and the Palestinians were left without a state.