UN vote on Palestine: Can Tony Blair prevent a diplomatic train wreck?

With Israeli and Palestinian leaders converging on the UN to state their cases, some warn that a diplomatic clash could lead to renewed Mideast violence. But Tony Blair reportedly has a plan.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) meets Middle East envoy Tony Blair in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 6. Blair and Abbas hope to prevent Mideast violence through a plan they will unveil at the UN in New York next week.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders are headed for a showdown at the United Nations next week – unless former British Prime Minister Tony Blair succeeds in an apparent 11th-hour bid to table a controversial UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday they plan to address the UN in New York late next week – Mr. Abbas to seek approval of Palestine as a UN member state, Mr. Netanyahu to tell the UN General Assembly why in his view a vote on Palestine would ruin chances for Mideast peace.

The looming confrontation over Palestine – with the United States promising to use its veto if the question of UN membership as a full-fledged state reaches the Security Council – is being portrayed in various quarters from the US to Europe and beyond as a diplomatic train wreck waiting to happen.

Some analysts warn of a day-after of confusion and dashed hopes that could spawn a new wave of Mideast violence.

It is in this climate of tension and foreboding that Mr. Blair is reportedly shopping around a plan to apply the train’s brakes and avoid a crash. Blair is the envoy of the Middle East Quartet, comprised of the US, the European Union, Russia, and the UN.

Under Blair’s proposal, the Palestinians would indeed present their bid for statehood, but to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban would take the proposal under advisement, with a commitment to present it for a vote in the General Assembly by the end of the year if the Israelis and Palestinians have not returned to direct negotiations by then.

The plan has several points in its favor:

• It allows the Palestinians to take their case for statehood to the UN – which the leadership says it is committed to doing – while avoiding a vote in the hothouse of the UN General Assembly’s opening week, when world leaders from President Obama to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be on hand.

• It avoids the prospect of a US veto, which many analysts say would damage the US role as an honest broker in the Mideast peace process and could poison American relations with Arab and Muslim countries.

• It opens the way for the resumption of direct negotiations which went nowhere after President Obama relaunched them in Washington last September.

Blair has presented his plan to Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week even as other diplomats have been shuttling to the region to try to avoid a UN vote and get back to direct peace talks.

Obama dispatched two diplomats, Mideast envoy David Hale and White House Mideast chief Dennis Ross, to the region again this week. The EU’s top foreign policy representative, Catherine Ashton, was also in talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

It was unclear late Thursday how coordinated the different diplomatic initiatives were or whether any of them was making headway.

In the meantime, confusion reigned over exactly what path the Palestinians were intending to take in New York in the absence of an accepted plan for putting off a statehood vote.

Palestinian leaders in Ramallah said their plan is to seek full UN membership – in other words, a Security Council vote – when Abbas speaks to the General Assembly Sept. 23.

“We have decided to submit our application for full membership,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki said Thursday. “At the same time,” he continued, “we have said that, until then, we are open to any kind of suggestions or ideas that could really come from any side for the renewal of negotiations.”

Hours later in New York, however, the Palestinians’ permanent observer to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told journalists that a decision has yet to be made on going for full membership through the Security Council or for some other form of UN representation through the General Assembly.

Mr. Mansour’s less categorical terms were interpreted by some analysts as a sign that a compromise was still possible.

Yet while Mr. al-Maliki also suggested that the statehood bid could ultimately be put off in favor of negotiations, he said that any such move would only be possible if the agreed direct negotiations came “with clear terms of reference, with a clear timetable and a clear end game.”

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