UNITED NATIONS — The spotlight will be shining on the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership when world leaders gather at the United Nations starting Monday, but the U.N. is hoping the glow will spread to other pressing global issues, including killer diseases, nuclear safety, terrorism and the aftershocks of the Arab Spring.
More than 120 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs will be meeting under heavy security at the General Assembly and in sideline events, just a week after the 10th anniversary of the terrorist bombings that shook the United States.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the high-level meetings are taking place "at a moment of uncommon turbulence and high anxiety," with famine in Somalia, turmoil in the Mideast, and the global economic crisis continuing to shake banks, businesses, governments and families. This year's agenda is jam-packed, and "the pace even faster than usual," he said.
The General Assembly ministerial session is almost certain to be dominated by the Palestinians' quest for internationally recognized statehood. More than 120 of the 193 U.N. member states have already recognized a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with Israel, according to Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday he will seek approval for Palestine to become the 194th member state of the United Nations, a move certain to trigger a diplomatic confrontation with Israel and the United States, its staunchest ally. The U.S. is a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, which must give its backing.
Abbas appeared to leave himself room to maneuver, saying he did not rule out other, unspecified options. Those could include seeking to raise the Palestinians' status at the U.N. from a "nonmember observer" to a "nonmember state" observer like the Holy See, a more easily obtainable goal that could not be vetoed by the U.S.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flying to New York to reiterate his commitment to peace and a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. He accused Abbas of dodging direct talks.
"Peace is not achieved through unilateral approaches to the U.N. or by joining forces with the Hamas terror organization," Netanyahu said in a statement, referring to a recent, unimplemented agreement to between Abbas and the violently anti-Israel Islamic group that rules Gaza to unite their rival governments. "Peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel."
U.S. President Barack Obama will also be attending, and there are hopes that perhaps the Palestinian and Israeli leaders can meet on the sidelines.
On Sunday, senior Palestinian and Israeli officials are expected to attend a meeting at U.N. headquarters of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a donor support group for the Palestinians that is expected to discuss their economic prospects. It includes top officials from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Quartet of Mideast mediators that have been trying to get the two sides back to the negotiating table — the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia.
Other world leaders will be vying for attention as well, including Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was undermined by his country's ruling clerics after he attempted to expand his own powers. Ahmadinejad has been thwarted by judicial authorities in his attempt to win the release of two jailed American hikers before flying to the U.S.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai also will be trying to grab headlines. So will protesters supporting Palestinian independence, opposing Ahmadinejad and demanding that U.N. peacekeepers leave Haiti.
One notable past participant won't be making it this time. Moammar Gadhafi, who in 2009 delivered a rambling, 96-minute speech before the assembly and created a ruckus by having his Bedouin-style tent set up on land owned by real estate tycoon Donald Trump, no longer leads Libya in the eyes of the U.N. The General Assembly voted Friday to accept the credentials of the leaders of the rebellion that ousted him.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who was elected last October, will be making her first appearance. The secretary-general said she will be the first woman in the 66-year history of the United Nations to be the first speaker in the General Debate, the annual ministerial session that begins Wednesday.
Many world leaders will be at the U.N. on Monday to begin a two-day, high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases. The talks are the first ever to focus on cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and lung diseases, which account for three out of every five deaths worldwide. More than 80 percent of the victims are in low- and middle-income countries.
"This is not just a matter of public health," Ban said. "It is a threat to development and stability."
Other high-level events include the 10-year commemoration of the 2001 U.N. racism conference held in Durban, South Africa, which created an uproar because its initial document equated Zionism with racism and there was intense anti-Israel rhetoric. Thursday's event will be attended by Ban, South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders, but the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel and at least six European nations are boycotting the meeting because of concerns it could become a vehicle for Israel-bashing.
On the sidelines, France, which currently heads the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, is hosting a meeting Tuesday on this year's historic changes in the Mideast. It will bring together G8 nations, the partner countries whose democratic transitions the group is supporting — Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Libya — as well as other key Arab and European nations, the U.N., IMF and World Bank.
A high-level meeting earlier Tuesday will spearhead support for Libya's newly seated Transitional National Council. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the council's leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, will attend the General Assembly and meet Obama.
Additional major events being held around the world gathering are:
— A symposium Monday on international counterterrorism cooperation between the United Nations and national governments over the past decade. "The terrorist threat has not gone away," Ban said, citing recent attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, India and on the U.N. office in Nigeria.
— A high-level meeting Wednesday on nuclear safety following the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that saw three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex go into meltdown.
— A follow-up session Thursday to Ban's "Every Woman Every Child" initiative, which has raised more than $40 billion for maternal and child health since it was launched last year.
— A meeting Friday on ways to advance the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in international efforts to create a world free of atomic weapons.
— The drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, now affecting 13.3 million people, will be the subject of a special meeting on Saturday. The U.N. has received two-thirds of the $2.4 billion it has appealed for to help drought victims, and Ban said he hopes to get the remainder during the high-level session.
— A meeting Tuesday will examine how desertification, land degradation and drought affect development — an especially critical issue in light of the African famine. Those issues are top priorities for Africa's tiny island nation of Cape Verde, Ambassador Pedro Monteiro Lima said.
"It puts down everything we do in the country to improve the economy and to improve the lives of our people," he said.Comment on this story
Montenegro's U.N. Ambassador Milorad Scepanovic said there's only one question at the end of the ministerial gabfest.
"What's the result?" he said. "We don't need more papers, documents and resolutions. What we need is mainly reform of the U.N. — efficiency."
Ban said the U.N. will continue working to put its house in order.
"Transparency and accountability remain our watchwords," he told reporters Thursday. "At a time of austerity, we must do more with the resources we have, not those we might wish to have."
Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations.