EU seeks limited upgrade of Palestinians' U.N. status

Sep 15, 2011, 7:39 p.m.

By Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - - The European Union hopes to persuade Palestinian leaders to drop plans for full United Nations membership this month in return for a nuanced upgrading of their U.N. observer status, EU diplomats said on Thursday.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, went to the Middle East this week to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians with the aim of reviving peace talks and averting a Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N. General Assembly, which begins its annual gathering on September 21.

The United States has warned that such an attempt would damage chances of reviving talks and sent envoys to the region this week to lobby the Palestinians.

Israel has also said any such move would put an end to negotiations, which were frozen a year ago in a dispute over Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would address the United Nations next week and urge the Palestinians to negotiate peace with Israel rather than pursue the bid for full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state.

Diplomats said Ashton was trying to negotiate a package that could include a statement by the Quartet of Middle East negotiators laying out guidelines for future talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In Brussels, diplomats said her proposal included a text that would not rule out full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state in the future but focuses for now on a lesser upgrade of their status coupled with a specific mention of talks.

"Our idea is to push for an upgrade of the Palestinian status without excluding full status in the future but with a reference to negotiations," one senior EU diplomat said.

It was not immediately clear whether this would be an upgrading to the status of "non-member state" observer, as held by the Vatican, or some other formulation.

The Palestinian Authority now has the status of an observer "entity."

The United States and Israel object to "non-member state" status for the Palestinians because this would let them take cases to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

Among ideas under discussion, diplomats said, was giving the Palestinians "non-member state" status while limiting their ability to launch such legal challenges. Another possibility would be to offer them lower status but to give them some nods in the direction of statehood, including possible direct access to World Bank funding.

In San Francisco U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday there was a "growing recognition" on the part of Israel and the Palestinians that the issues had to be settled in peace talks and that they "will not be resolved if some other route is taken at the United Nations.

The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut the roughly $500 million in annual U.S. aid to the Palestinians, but Israel on Thursday urged the international community to maintain assistance.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed on Wednesday "no retreat" from the plans to request full U.N. membership in the absence of talks with Israel.

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