Middle East

UN to vote on Palestinian enhanced status

The UN General Assembly is set to vote on upgrading the Palestinian status from observer entity to observer state.

Palestinians say the bid, which would give it the same "non-member state" status as the Vatican, is an attempt to rescue the Middle East peace process.

Analysts say the application is likely to win approval in the 193-member body when it is put to a vote, because it needs only a simple majority to pass.

The bid is strongly opposed by Israel and the US. The UK may abstain.

According to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), more than 130 countries now grant the Palestinians the rank of a sovereign state.

They chose the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" for the vote, which is set to take place at 21:00 GMT and will be preceded by a number of speeches focusing on the rights of the Palestinians.

European Union 'split'

The Palestinians are seeking UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967

Opponents of the bid say a Palestinian state should emerge only out of bilateral negotiations.

Israel and the US say the Palestinians are trying to seek full statehood via the UN, rather than through negotiation as set out in the 1993 Oslo peace accords under which the Palestinian Authority was established.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The decision at the United Nations will change nothing on the ground.

"It will not advance the establishment of a Palestinian state. It will delay it further."

The Palestinians say the move is not meant to replace negotiations but improve their leverage and define the territory they want for a state, which has been eroded by Israeli settlement building.

"It is a very important step in trying to save the two-state solution, maybe last time to save the two-state solution," said Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour.

France, Spain and Norway are among those urging the General Assembly to raise the Palestinians' UN status. Germany is set to abstain.

Strong European support would strengthen the diplomatic clout of the bid, says the BBC's Barbara Plett in New York: the European Union is split but so far more than a dozen countries have said they will vote in favour.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the UK will back the resolution, but only after receiving a number of assurances, principally that the Palestinians would seek negotiations with Israel "without pre-conditions".

He told parliament on Wednesday that the Palestinians must also agree not to seek membership of International Criminal Court (ICC), as any move to extend the jurisdiction of the court over the occupied territories could derail any chance of talks resuming.

"However, in the absence of these assurances, the UK would abstain on the vote," he said.

"This would be consistent with our strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood, but our strong concern that the resolution could set the peace process back."

Palestinian diplomats said they had rejected the "unrealistic" demands.

Entering peace talks without any strings attached meant abandoning the key demand that the construction of settlements on the West Bank must be frozen, Palestinian ambassador to the UK Manuel Hassassian told the BBC.

The request not to join the ICC was "absolutely unworkable", he added.

Change in tone?

While the move is seen as a symbolic milestone in Palestinian ambitions for statehood, a "Yes" vote would also have a practical diplomatic effect, adds our UN correspondent:

It would allow the Palestinians to participate in debates at the UN and improve their chances of joining UN agencies and bodies like the ICC.

Last year Mr Abbas applied for full UN membership, but that got bogged down at the Security Council amidst US opposition, she says.

The US and especially Israel had suggested the Palestinians would suffer financial sanctions for this lesser upgrade, although Israel seems to have moderated its tone. Officials now say they will wait to see how the Palestinians use their new status.

As senior US diplomats travelled to New York on Wednesday in a last-bid attempt to get Mr Abbas to reconsider, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the US position that the Palestinian move was misguided.

"The path to a two-state solution that fulfils the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York," she said. "The only way to get a lasting solution is to commence direct negotiations."

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