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Abbas set for scaled-down bid at U.N.

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — There is no fanfare this time, no campaign in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as he heads this week to the United Nations to ask for an upgrade of the Palestinians’ status there to a non-member state.

Abbas is scheduled to speak at the General Assembly on Thursday, a year after he addressed that body in a high-profile bid to win U.N. membership for a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. That effort fizzled in the Security Council when the Palestinians were unable to muster enough votes in the face of strong opposition from Washington, which threatened to veto the bid.

So the scaled-down bid this year has the feeling of an anticlimax.

Facing stalled peace efforts with the Israelis, an impasse in attempts to heal the rift between his Fatah movement and the Islamist group Hamas, and economic unrest in the West Bank, Abbas returns to the U.N. after a year in which the Palestinian issue has been sidelined by concerns about the Iranian nuclear program and the unfolding Arab Spring.

While Abbas will try to use his speech to refocus world attention on the Palestinian quest for statehood, it is far from clear that his words will be followed anytime soon with a draft resolution to change the Palestinians’ status at the U.N. from an “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state.”

Though Security Council approval is needed for full membership in the United Nations, an upgrade in status need only be approved by the General Assembly, where resolutions cannot be vetoed. As an observer state, Palestine could join U.N. agencies such as the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian officials have suggested they could bring cases against Israel.

A majority at the 193-member General Assembly likely would favor granting the Palestinians observer-state status, but Israel and the United States oppose the move, calling it a unilateral step to decide an issue that should be resolved through negotiations.

If the resolution is submitted, Abbas could risk losing promised financial aid from Washington as well as tax and customs transfers from the Israelis. Those are funds the Palestinian Authority, mired in a deepening fiscal crisis, desperately needs.

Caught between those external pressures and public discontent over the lack of movement toward ending the Israeli occupation, Abbas appears to be walking a tightrope: He is going to the United Nations in a show of diplomatic resolve, while remaining unclear about when a draft statehood resolution would actually be submitted to the body.

At a news conference at his Ramallah headquarters this month, he was deliberately vague about the timing of the step, saying the Palestinians would consult with allies about a draft that would be submitted for a vote “at the appropriate time.”

Palestinian officials acknowledge that any such resolution is unlikely to be presented in the weeks leading up to the U.S. election, so as not to antagonize President Obama at a politically sensitive moment.

Still, the officials assert, the renewed approach to the United Nations is meant to mobilize international support for Palestinian statehood at a time when efforts to renew negotiations with Israel have foundered. “This step aims to preserve the two-state solution,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters last week. “After the U.N. vote . . . Palestine will become a country under occupation.”

Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Abbas, said that after a year of failed efforts to restart talks, “we just reached a dead end.

“We really lost a lot of support from our people,” Shaath said in an interview. “The U.S. has done absolutely nothing to somehow make up for what has been lost through this futile effort. . . . So we’re going back to seek more international support and more international legitimacy.”

Attempts to restart negotiations have faltered over a Palestinian demand that Israel halt settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and agree to negotiate a peace deal based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with land swaps. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a resumption of talks without preconditions.

In an interview published Monday in the newspaper Israel Hayom, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that if peace efforts remain stalled, Israel should take “practical steps” of its own. He suggested withdrawing from outlying settlements in the West Bank and retaining control of the larger Israeli settlement blocs where most of the settlers live. Commentators called the remarks an attempt by Barak to distinguish himself from Netanyahu and appeal to mainstream Israeli voters, with an eye to possible early elections.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said that the latest Palestinian initiative at the United Nations was a violation of Israeli-Palestinian agreements to resolve their conflict through negotiations, and that Israel “reserves the right” to respond, though he declined to elaborate.

“On the one hand, the Palestinians refuse to negotiate and condemn the process to a period of stagnation, and the same Palestinian leadership says that because of the stagnation, they are forced to take radical steps,” Regev said. “It’s simply not logical.”

Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that the Palestinian leadership’s U.N. bid had become “a problem for them, because they want to preserve their relations with the United States, which has communicated to them very clearly that it doesn’t want them to do it.”

“I think that it’s a convenient solution for them for Abbas to give a speech, not do anything in practice, and to promise as they have all along that they are still intending to go ahead with a General Assembly resolution,” Thrall said.

On the streets of Ramallah on Monday, where there were demonstrations this month against the high cost of living, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for the scaled-down U.N. statehood bid, in sharp contrast to the flag-waving last year.

“It’s all empty words, and nothing has changed,” said Muhammad Abdullah, sitting in his plumbing supplies store. “People are more worried now about just making a living.”

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