By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. officials are meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week and lobbying a growing number of foreign countries to avert a diplomatic crisis over the Palestinians' U.N. membership later this month, the State Department said on Tuesday.
The flurry of activity comes as President Barack Obama's administration scrambles to head off a Palestinian plan to seek full membership during the U.N. General Assembly session that begins on September 19, despite U.S. and Israeli objections.
Dennis Ross, a senior White House official, and David Hale, the U.S. Mideast peace envoy, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday. Hale will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.
U.S. officials fear the Palestinians move at the United Nations could further complicate Washington's flagging effort to resume direct peace negotiations which broke down last year with the expiry of a 10-month partial Israeli moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Abbas by telephone on Tuesday, urging him to "hear them with open ears, and to continue to work hard with us to avoid a negative scenario in New York at the end of the month," Nuland said.
"We are going to continue to work right up until the U.N. General Assembly, if necessary, to get these parties back to the table, and we'll continue to work afterwards," Nuland said.
"We will continue to oppose any one-sided actions at the U.N., and we're making that clear to both sides."
Israel is lobbying against the Palestinian bid, which it sees as an effort to isolate and delegitimize it and extend the conflict into new arenas such as the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinians are now U.N. observers without voting rights. To become a full member, their bid would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States would likely veto it.
Obama in May proposed the two sides discuss terms based on the borders that existed in before the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, along with agreed territorial swaps.
Netanyahu, who leads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties, rejected the plan as unworkable and Abbas has pledged to carry on with the plan for U.N. recognition.
U.S. LAWMAKERS AGITATED
The United States was making clear to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority that some U.S. lawmakers were growing increasingly agitated over the U.N. plan, Nuland said. But she stopped short of saying that Washington was warning that aid could be at risk.
"We don't threaten. But we are making sure that they are hearing the voices in the Congress, which are getting increasingly loud on this subject," Nuland said.
A senior Republican lawmaker last week introduced legislation aiming to cut off U.S. funds for any U.N. organization that embraces an upgrade to the Palestinians' diplomatic status. The United States is the biggest contributor to the U.N. budget, paying about 22 percent of its core budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping costs.
Nuland said statements by countries pledging to support the Palestinians at the United Nations were a concern and U.S. diplomats were fanning out to underscore Washington's view that the U.N. vote, which would likely pass, would be ill-advised.
The European Union, for one, appears divided with some members of the 27-member bloc backing Palestinian efforts and others opposing them.
Nuland said that the U.S. diplomatic push involved a wide range of countries which might face a decision on the Palestinian vote at the General Assembly.
"The United States believes that it is a very bad idea to be trying to create a new state in New York rather than to do it at the negotiating table. It's not going to work," Nuland said.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)