By Noah Browning
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - A monumental wooden chair erected in Ramallah to symbolize the Palestinians' sought-after United Nations seat collapsed this week after months of wind and rain. Bulldozers quietly took away the shattered remains by night.
It's collapse and stealthy removal could well serve as an emblem of Palestinian hopes for statehood.
For the first time in years, meetings this week between U.S. and Israeli leaders were largely silent on the long-stalled peace process. Debate between Israel and Washington over a military strike on Iran knocked Israel-Palestinian peace talks to the bottom of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda.
"The Israeli government has a strategy: to maintain the status quo... We say that we won't accept the rules of this game," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
But to the frustration of many ordinary Palestinians, there is no other game. Riven by internal quarrels, the Palestinians are struggling to make their voice heard. World attention has shifted to the U.S. presidential elections, the escalating violence in Syria and Iran's nuclear program.
Palestinian officials have said for weeks they are drafting a formal ultimatum to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating longstanding grievances and repeating demands for a halt to all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank as a precondition for a resumption of talks that broke down in 2010.
The Israelis will certainly reject the demands, if they ever arrive, and will face no international pressure to back down, with world attention fixed firmly on the Iranian nuclear row.
Facing this eventuality, the Palestinians have suggested reviving a 2011 campaign to transcend direct negotiations and again petition the United Nations for statehood recognition.
"We will go to the General Assembly at a time the Palestinian leadership chooses, in coordination with the Arab League. This is just one of the options," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
A growing number of Palestinian commentators have criticized such a strategy as aimless. Full statehood status can only come from the U.N. Security Council and the United States has made clear on numerous occasions that it will veto any such move.
Citing the repeated delays in issuing what he has derided as the "mother of all letters", former cabinet minister Hassan Asfour wrote in the Amad online journal this week that Palestinian leaders were unwilling to push the issue for fear of upsetting long-standing security and economic ties with Israel.
Further taxing Palestinian efforts for international recognition, Abbas has invested heavily in reconciliation talks with Islamist group Hamas, a rival faction that seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and refuses to recognize Israel.
After almost a year of negotiations, brokered by both Egypt and Qatar, Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has got little to show for his efforts, drawing more fire from the Palestinian public, which sees him as a remote and indecisive leader.
"The Palestinian strategy has been hampered by the rather limited diplomatic capacity of Abu Mazen and those around him," said Rami Khouri, a researcher at the American University of Beirut. "In the absence of a more effective leadership, these internal problems have made the Palestinians vulnerable to being sidelined," he said.
Hamas also faces unprecedented internal divisions over the listless push for reconciliation, shrouding the entire Palestinian political class in gloom.
"We're now hearing of a reconciliation ‘process'," said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst. "There's more process than actual progress in ending the divisions. It's becoming just like the ‘peace process.'"
Financial woes may further dim the appetite of West Bank officials to disturb the status quo, as eroding support from international donors wreaks a punishing slowdown on the economy and stokes popular frustration.
In retaliation for the Palestinian's U.N. drive, the United States froze $150 million in aid last year, while payments from wealthy Arab nations have also fallen far short of expectations.
The reversals, coupled with the global downturn, have driven growth rates from 9 percent in 2010 to under six percent last year, according to unofficial projections.
In an effort to plug a growing budget deficit, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tried to introduce tax hikes at the start of 2012, but had to backtrack in the face of public anger.
Israeli politicians show little concern but army officers, tasked with patrolling the West Bank, fear violence may fill the vacuum.
"Without a viable peace process, the situation here risks getting progressively frayed," said one Israeli officer, not authorized to speak on the record about security concerns.
Stone-throwing youths and Israeli security forces have repeatedly clashed on the outskirts of Jerusalem and in West Bank towns this year, killing one Palestinian last month. The violence has come and gone, but tensions are edging higher.
The government in Ramallah, lacking any democratic mandate since 2006, appears stuck in a rut. But it looks unwilling to provoke any profound crisis with the Israelis - such as dissolving their administration - for fear of the backlash.
"There is a lack of legitimacy, but they can continue on this path if they want to," said analyst al-Masri. "They don't want to pay the price to their status, their powers and authority."
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Jihan Abdalla; editing by Crispian Balmer and Janet McBride)
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