POLITICS
09/13/2011 02:33 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

U.S. envoys Hale, Ross to head back to Mideast

By Arshad Mohammed and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. envoys will visit the Middle East this week to try to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and avert a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, the United States said on Tuesday.

The mission by U.S. Middle East peace envoy David Hale and senior White House aide Dennis Ross appears to be a last-ditch push to dissuade the Palestinians from seeking to upgrade their U.N. status this month, a step Israel strongly opposes.

The United States and Israel believe the Palestinians should try to establish a state through direct peace talks, which broke down nearly a year ago, and they say that action at the United Nations will make it harder to resume negotiations.

"The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties and the route to that lies in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, not in New York," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters.

"Our hope is that we get the parties back into a frame of mind and a process where they will actually begin negotiating again," she added, a goal that critics, analysts and even an administration ally suggested will be hard to achieve.

A State Department spokeswoman said Clinton's reference to Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its eternal and indivisible capital, did not imply any change in the U.S. position that Jerusalem's status should be decided in direct negotiations.

President Barack Obama also reiterated his opposition to the Palestinian U.N. move. "I have said very clearly, if this came to the Security Council, then we would object very strongly, precisely because we think it would be counterproductive," Obama said in a group interview on Monday with Spanish-language journalists, which was published on Tuesday.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem, all territories that Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

U.S. ENVOYS TO MEET NETANYAHU, ABBAS

Obama's administration is scrambling to head off a Palestinian plan to seek full United Nations membership during the U.N. General Assembly session that begins on Monday but critics argue that its push may come too late.

Hale and Ross, who met both sides last week in the region but appeared to make no headway, are due to leave Washington on Tuesday night for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is close to the administration, said there was little chance of stopping the Palestinian bid.

"I think the only thing that might change the dynamic now is a major proposal by Israel on the table with respect to the peace process," Kerry told reporters.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, met about 20 Democratic members of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss "mutual efforts" to deter the Palestinians from their U.N. effort, a spokeswoman for House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said.

The last round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down nearly a year ago with the expiration of a 10-month partial Israeli moratorium on Jewish settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for their state.

Israel sees the Palestinian bid as an effort to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state and to extend the conflict into new arenas such as the International Criminal Court.

A senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters the plan was still to seek full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state despite the new U.S. mission.

LAST-MINUTE EFFORT?

Earlier, the aide, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said the Palestinian leadership would listen to any proposals but suggested the current U.S. push had come too late.

"We are open-minded to any proposal ... but this is not a step to really stop us from going to the United Nations," he said. "If the whole idea of a proposal is to engage peacefully then you don't really bring it in the last five minutes."

Diplomats have said it is not clear what the Palestinians will do when the U.N. General Assembly opens.

The Palestinians are now U.N. observers without voting rights. To become a full member, their bid would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States has said it will veto it.

Rather than seeking full U.N. membership, they could seek upgraded status as a "non-member state," which would require a simple majority of the 193-nation assembly.

The United States, however, said it would not favor this model either.

Another possibility would be to propose a resolution to the General Assembly that might give greater backing to their desire for a state but not actually call for upgrading the Palestinians status at the United Nations.

(Additional reporting by Labib Nasir, Tom Perry and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)