With the chief Palestinian peace negotiator in Washington, the Obama administration on Wednesday repeated its opposition to any unilateral attempt to secure U.N. recognition for an independent Palestine and prepared for a difficult meeting of Middle East mediators next week.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was trying to prod the Israelis and Palestinians back into direct negotiations after a multi-month impasse. She said the Palestinian move for a U.N. vote on its statehood this autumn wasn't advancing the process.
"Our goal is to get these parties back to the table, and our position on the idea of a U.N. action in September remains that it's not a good idea, that it's not helpful," she told reporters. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made the case previously.
Nuland spoke as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was meeting with senior U.S. officials in Washington, and after Clinton discussed the state of play in the Mideast in a telephone conversation with Tony Blair, the international envoy to the region.
Amid scarce signs of a breakthrough, the talks reflected at least a recent upshot in diplomatic activity. With Israelis and Palestinians entrenched in an international battle for and against the recognition effort, Clinton will host U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a key meeting of the "quartet" of Mideast peacemakers on Monday.
But they may have little new to report. Part of the problem is that the Palestinians have so committed to the U.N. effort that any pullback would amount to a major embarrassment for the U.S.-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas _ and possibly strengthen the hand of rival Hamas militants.
Yet with the peace process essentially frozen for the last two years, Washington has struggled to offer Abbas an alternative. Obama's May endorsement of Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis of a future Palestine has proven little stimulus toward a two-state peace settlement.
"People have choices to make," Erekat said after his meetings at the State Department, stressing that the Palestinians wouldn't waver in submitting their declaration to the U.N. by the end of July. "We are a people who are seeking our independence and trying to get rid of this occupation once and for all."
Erekat rejected the idea that the U.N. action was incompatible with peace, voicing frustration that two decades of talks with Israel have failed to define national borders and settle a series of other questions. "It's really unacceptable to keep the issue of Palestinian self-determination, independence and statehood hostage to the wishes of certain Israeli governments," he said.
Nuland said the quartet would take stock of the peace process and acknowledged that it is "hard work getting these parties back to the table." And that says nothing about long-standing questions related to territory and security that have been pushed off for months.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed only weeks after they restarted last autumn, when the Jewish state resumed settlement construction on lands Palestinians claim for their country. The Palestinians say talks can begin again when Israel halts building in occupied areas.
Michael Oren, Israel's U.S. ambassador, said Wednesday that his country was working with the United States on a document outlining agreed parameters for talks to move forward. He said on a conference call that a number of Palestinian obstacles still stood in the way, from the recent reconciliation between Abbas' government and Hamas _ considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West _ to the U.N. recognition issue.
Any vote at the United Nations will probably end up being symbolic, though the Palestinians hope it can pressure Israel to withdraw from territories captured 44 years ago. The mediators themselves are divided.
Israel, backed up by the U.S., condemns the Palestinian strategy as unilateral and says it can only harm peace prospects. And American sympathies were underlined Wednesday as the House moved toward overwhelming passage of a bipartisan resolution criticizing the U.N. effort and urging the administration to review aid to the Palestinians in light of the Hamas-Fatah deal. A vote was expected later in the week.
Yet the Palestinians have some support from Russia and the Europeans are split.
Netanyahu appeared to win Romania's vote during a Wednesday visit to the nation, but Muslim countries and most of the developing world back an immediate declaration of independence for Palestine. U.N. General Assembly decisions need Security Council approval to be legally binding, and the U.S. would surely veto such a resolution.