Salah Nasrawi
The Statesman
October 9, 2010 - 12:00am

SIRTE, LIBYA — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday sought Arab backing for possible fallback options in case troubled peace talks with Israel collapse, including urging the United States to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.

For now, the Obama administration is still trying to salvage the negotiations that began in Washington five weeks ago.

The Arab League, meeting in Libya over the weekend, gave the Americans another month — just past midterm elections in the U.S. — to try to break the deadlock over Israeli settlement expansion.

Abbas has said he would not resume negotiations unless Israel extends a 10-month-old slowdown on settlement construction that ended in late September. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected an extension, but is considering compromises.

The Palestinian leader's options in the event that talks break down appear limited. Discussions about alternatives, including at the Arab League summit, appear to be largely aimed at pressuring Israel and spurring the U.S. into action.

On Saturday, Abbas told Arab leaders that he does not expect Israel to budge on the settlement issue and that in the meantime, opposition to continuing the talks is building among the Palestinians.

"We have exhausted all our alternatives," two Arab diplomats quoted Abbas as saying. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information discussed in the closed session.

Abbas aide Nabil Shaath said the Palestinian leaders have withdrawn their support for a proposed U.S. compromise to extend the settlement curb for 60 more days. Earlier this week, Shaath had said the Palestinians are willing to consider the idea, provided the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state were negotiated within that period.

"We are not willing anymore to consider 60 days," Shaath told The Associated Press in an interview in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "When you see nothing but hardened positions, you really have to meet it with the same tactic," he said, referring to Israel's negotiating stance.

In recent months, some of Abbas' advisers have floated the idea of asking the U.N. Security Council for a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Abbas adviser Saeb Erekat said Abbas asked the Arab League on Saturday to help persuade the Obama administration to unilaterally recognize such a state. If the Americans reject such a request, the Palestinians might take up the issue with the Security Council, nonetheless, Erekat said.

But Arab League undersecretary general Ahmed bin Helli said Arab leaders did not immediately respond to Abbas' request, preferring instead to give the U.S. more time to try to rescue the negotiations.

"We have one month period, so let us wait and see," bin Helli told The Associated Press.

Washington would likely veto Security Council action. The United States opposes a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood and has blocked efforts at the U.N. to recognize such a state. The long-standing U.S. position is that statehood should come through negotiations with the Israelis.

Another option would be for Abbas to resign and dissolve his Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government established in the 1990s as a result of interim peace deals with Israel. Currently, the Palestinian Authority only controls parts of the West Bank, while Gaza is run by the Islamic militant Hamas that seized the territory from Abbas in 2007. Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 but still controls crossings into the territory.

The Palestinian Authority, funded generously by the international community, has largely relieved Israel of its responsibility under international law to care for those living under its occupation. Israel would likely want to prevent a dissolution of the Palestinian Authority to avoid taking on such a costly burden.

However, dissolving the Palestinian Authority seems a distant and dramatic step, in part because it would cost tens of thousands of Palestinian civil servants their livelihood and throw the Palestinian territories into turmoil.

Shaath said all options are on the table, but added: "I don't think any of these options are on the planning board for tomorrow."


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