The Obama administration is scrambling to head off what it fears will be a diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations next week.
After years of gridlock in Mideast negotiations, the Palestinians plan to seek U.N. membership as a state on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war. That territory includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and the plan would go through the Security Council, where the U.S. has already promised to use its veto.
But the Palestinians have another option. They say they will go to the General Assembly to upgrade their status at the U.N., where they currently have a "permanent observer mission."
The Palestinians could expect overwhelming support in a bid to become a "non-member observer state," though the move would be mostly symbolic and would not result in anything resembling full statehood.
Palestinians Cite Obama Speech
When talking about their U.N. bid, 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 decades of conflict.
"This time, we should reach for what's best within ourselves," the president said. "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."
The talks broke down quickly over the issue of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, where some 300,000 Israeli Jewish settlers live. 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.
"As a practical matter, as a matter of reality and fact, there is no way to accomplish the goal absent direct negotiations," Rice says. "There's just no way. You can pass any number of pieces of papers at the United Nations — it's not going to create a state."
Palestinians say going to the U.N. will give them a stronger hand should negotiations resume. But Rice told a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor that the Palestinian move is a "dangerous diversion" with real-world consequences.
"This is not one day of hoo-ha and celebration in the General Assembly or the Security Council, and then everybody goes home," Rice added.
U.S. Congress Could Act
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's cause for concern.
"Yeah, we are worried," she says. "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 is doing with American cover."
She says the U.S. failed to revive serious negotiations with a clear time frame and goals. So now the Palestinians are taking what Ashrawi describes as a legal, responsible path at the U.N.
"If we get an upgrade in our status to a non-member state, that will first of all give us access to all U.N. institutions, organizations and agencies, including, of course, judicial agencies for legal accountability," she says.
In other words, the Palestinians could then challenge Israel's activities in the occupied territories.
Israelis Plan Response
Israel has warned that the Palestinians are putting security and economic agreements at risk. 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.
"Our aspiration is not just for good economic prosperity," he said. "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 want to build our own homes, as well. It is time. We are ready for statehood."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the road to Palestine does not go through the United Nations. She's sending two U.S. officials, Dennis Ross and David Hale, back to the region to once again try to revive negotiations and head off a diplomatic showdown next week.