NEW YORK — With the future of the Middle East in the balance, the United States and Europe are scrambling for a way to avoid a jarring showdown over whether to admit an independent Palestine as a new United Nations member. Instead, they are trying to guide Israel and the Palestinians back into the tough bargaining on a long-sought peace agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Sunday in New York and discussed the current trajectory, in which the Palestinian plan to gain statehood and membership at the U.N. would run headfirst into an American veto in the Security Council, and possible Israeli recriminations.
Yet there was no apparent and immediate solution to the many problems that have hindered Mideast peace efforts for months. Diplomats were working feverishly as part of an increasingly desperate effort to guide the two parties back into direct negotiations, but were tight-lipped on whether the slim chances for a breakthrough were improving.
"We are meeting to talk about the way forward," Clinton said as she shook hands with Ashton in a New York hotel. She declined to say if mediators were making progress.
The Palestinians are frustrated by their inability to win from Israel concessions such as a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. And with violence out of the question and bilateral talks with Israel failing, they see the U.N. route as the only viable route for progress in the short term.
To address the Palestinian concerns, Western officials were discussing the possibility of including some timeframes, however vague, in any statement put out by the Mideast peace mediators — the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia — known as the Quartet, officials said. These would focus on the restart of Israeli-Palestinian talks and signs of tangible progress.
Envoys from all four gathered Sunday in New York and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Quartet envoy Tony Blair. A further meeting of Quartet officials was planned for Monday, officials said, with Ashton possibly presenting some ideas to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the same day.
The timeframes wouldn't be deadlines, as such, but would seem to address the Palestinian desire to see quick action. The offer would come with an unchanged message that Washington would veto a Palestinian bid at the Security Council for U.N. recognition and membership, but at the very least it would represent a dignity-saving compromise for Abbas' U.S.-backed government.
The alternative concern is that an embarrassment for his government would embolden Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization and which would be far less eager to negotiate a two-state settlement with the Jewish nation.
The irony is that only 12 months ago, President Barack Obama said he wanted the U.N. to be welcoming Palestine as its newest member this year. But talks broke down long ago, and the U.S. is in the unenviable position of leading the opposition to something it actually supports, fearful a Palestinian victory might cause a debilitating rift with Israel and set the talks back further.
American officials were working to secure additional opposition to recognition, officials said. Without nine affirmative votes in the 15-member Council, the Palestinian resolution would fail and Washington wouldn't have to act alone.
U.S. officials believe six other members may vote against or abstain, meaning the Palestinians would fall short. That tally could not be immediately confirmed.
Heading off or watering down the Palestinian resolution had been the goal of international diplomats. If they can accomplish that, they hope to parlay it into a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders where the two sides would re-launch negotiations. But the Palestinians have refused to back down and give up the little leverage they hope to win.
"The aim of this is try to elevate the Palestinians to a more equal footing so that this disparity that existed over the last 18 years, which allowed Israel to exploit it to its advantage, can end and they can talk now to an equal member state of the United Nations," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinians' top representative to the U.S.
Areikat told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the Palestinians could accept an alternative, but it must include "clear terms of reference to return to the negotiations, clear time frame and an endgame."
Even with a loss in the Security Council, the Palestinians were expected to take their case for recognition to the General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support and the U.S. cannot block it.
A nod from the General Assembly could give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.
The Israelis fear such courts would target them unfairly, which is something that the Jewish state's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said had been outlined by the Palestinians themselves.
They are "going to the U.N. to get this state not to make peace but to challenge Israel's legitimacy in international arenas and to try to undermine the peace process," he told CNN.
His comments reflected Israel's concern about further isolation and underscored the country's mistrust of the United Nations.
To restart peace talks, international negotiators are also trying to coax the Palestinians with a modest upgrade in status and provide Israel some package of ideas addressing its demand for recognition as a Jewish state.
"The Palestinians will want to advance their case for statehood at the U.N., but it's my desire to put alongside whatever happens at the U.N. a credible framework for negotiation," former British Prime Minister Blair said. "Because in the end the state is delivered not by resolution but by action on the ground, and that requires negotiation."
The Palestinians have rejected proposals put forth by Blair and seconded by U.S. envoys Dennis Ross and David Hale that would give the Palestinians the "attributes of a state," including membership in nonjudicial international organizations, without actual statehood.
"It is too late now," Abbas aide Nabil Shaath told The Associated Press. "The proposals (that) came to us ... are not good even as a starting point."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Mohammad Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.