Barack Obama arrived at the United Nations on Monday evening as pressure intensified on the Palestinian leadership to abandon its plan to ask the UN security council to declare the occupied territories a Palestinian state.
The Europeans are at the forefront of attempts to persuade the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to back off from the request.
Even France, which is generally sympathetic to the call for statehood, is now saying that the diplomatic cost of a showdown with the US, which has said it will veto the move in the security council, will damage the Palestinian cause.
Abbas said “all hell has broken out against us” over the bid for statehood but he told the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that he would not be diverted from his plan to make the request to the security council on Friday.
The Middle East quartet of the EU, UN, US and Russia were to meet on Monday evening in an attempt to construct a formula to restart peace talks and stave off a showdown in the security council. Diplomats say the key is to make the proposal strong enough, in part by stating clearly that negotiations will be on the basis of 1967 borders with some swaps of territories, so that Abbas can claim a significant step toward ending the occupation. But the Palestinians remain deeply sceptical after 20 years of negotiations failing to win their independence.
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said in New York that he planned to tell Abbas at a meeting later on Monday that going to the security council will be a political error.
“I will ask him: what is his strategy? Going to the security council, and what after that?” he said. “We have to avoid such a confrontation. We have to find a balanced solution.”
Juppe said that the “relaunch of the peace process is needed” and that the international community has “three or four days” to find a solution.
But Juppe also warned that the status quo of the Israeli occupation is “neither acceptable nor tenable”, and that lack of progress toward a solution will lead to another “explosion of violence”.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said in New York that the Palestinian move is “not a course of action that we recommend, because it will just lead to confrontation”.
“The best outcome of all the negotiations and discussions taking place here in New York this week would be if Palestinians and Israelis agreed to go back into negotiations together,” he said, a position echoed by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flies to New York on Tuesday, said Abbas was “wasting time” with the bid for statehood, and called on him instead to meet for face-to-face talks in New York.
“I call on the PA chair to open direct negotiations in New York that will continue in Jerusalem and Ramallah,” Netanyahu said.
Diplomats said that the principal American strategy now appears to be to pressure enough non-permanent members of the security council to vote against Palestinian statehood or, more likely, abstain in the hope of denying Abbas the nine votes he needs to win and so save the US the embarrassment of having to wield its veto.
Neither Britain nor France has said how they will vote in the security council if the issue comes before them. Both are permanent members and a no vote would count as a veto.
However, there is the possibility the Palestinians could also take the matter to the general assembly. It has the power only to offer only observer status but a vote in favour would be a moral victory. Hague did not rule out British support for that move.
“We, along with all the other 26 countries of the European Union, have withheld our position on how we would vote on any resolution that may come forward in the general assembly in order to exert as much pressure on both sides to return to negotiations,” he said.
Diplomats said a number of possilibitlies have been under discussion, including that Abbas might submit his request to the security council and that it will be put on hold while fresh peace talks begin. If they fail, or if agreement is not reached by a specified deadline, the request would then be revived and brought before the security council.
But backtracking now will prove difficult for Abbas, after a he made a resolute speech late last week saying that the Palestinians have been forced in to the move by Israeli intransigence, and that he would not be “bought off”.
The Palestinian leadership is also deeply sceptical of American claims to be prepared to act as an honest broker in fresh talks. It has lost confidence in Obama’s claims to be prepared to stand up to Israel.
“It’s going to be a close-run thing,” said one western diplomat at the UN. “Can Abbas be persuaded that it’s not in the Palestinians’ interests to have a confrontation with the Americans in the security council and to embarrass Obama? I doubt it, but it might happen. If not, can the Americans get the votes together in the security council to avoid the veto?
“I defy anyone to predict how this is going to turn out by the end of the week.”