The Palestinians were coming under mounting pressure to drop a bid for U.N. membership of a Palestinian state as diplomats worked frantically behind the scenes to head off a looming clash.
Both the United States and the Europeans appeared to be working to buy more time, with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas determined to press ahead with plans to submit a formal application to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
U.S. President Barack Obama was to meet Abbas on Wednesday, just hours after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a U.S. official said.
“With both the Israelis and also the Palestinians, the president will be able to say, very directly, why he believes that an action at the United Nations is not a way to achieve a Palestinian state,” national security advisor Ben Rhodes said.
“President Abbas has indicated his intent to go to the Security Council, President Obama has been clear that we do not believe that that will lead to a Palestinian state.”
“The second point though, what we’re focused on is having a basis for direct negotiations to achieve a Palestinian state,” he added.
Obama has already called for negotiations to resume using the 1967 borders -- before the Six-Day war -- as a starting point for the contours of an eventual Palestinian state.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday said that for progress to be made in the thorny clash at the United Nations over Palestinian statehood, both sides will have to give.
“It’s up to us, and mainly to our counterpart, the Palestinian leadership, Mahmoud Abbas, and to others, to show the leadership and start to move,” Barak told CNN television.
“It’s not easy at the moment,” Barak stressed, when asked if an agreement might be within reach.
But “I hope and I believe that a way should be found to make it a launching pad for a new momentum to resume negotiations. No conditions in order to strike a deal. I believe that it's possible. Both of us are powerful, two states, two people.”
“I think the differences are not insurmountable,” the former prime minister added.
European diplomats and the Middle East Quartet -- comprising the EU, the U.S., the U.N. and Russia -- were all seeking to head off the confrontation.
Sources close to the negotiations, that asked to remain anonymous, said a focus was on trying to buy time to allow a broader path towards resuming the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which have stalled since September 2010.
One possibility was that Ban does not hand over Abbas’s letter straight away to the Security Council, one European source told AFP, adding there were other “diplomatic airbags” that could be used to defuse tensions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Tuesday with Abbas, was also expected to unveil a breakthrough during his speech to the opening of the U.N. assembly in Wednesday, French sources told AFP.
Abbas held a whirlwind of talks Tuesday in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly which opens Wednesday.
“Intense diplomacy to prevent a diplomatic train crash on Middle East peace. We must find a way forward for everyone,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in a message on Twitter.
Several diplomats confirmed the aim was to find a plan that would satisfy both sides, while also avoiding an escalation of violence in the volatile region.
The Palestinians need to secure nine votes out of the 15 Security Council members for its bid for U.N. statehood to pass the initial stages. Moscow would “certainly” support the Palestinian’s bid, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogfanov declared Tuesday in New York.
European nations are working behind the scenes to try to avert the confrontation, with the Middle East Quartet also seeking to draw up a statement that would coax Israel and the Palestinians back to talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also meeting late Tuesday with an African nation, one of the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council.
Clinton met Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the Quartet statement. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met Abbas Tuesday, said “no progress” had yet been made on drafting it.
In a letter to Britain’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, Hague said he was working to find a way forward and “create the strongest possible foundation for a return to negotiations.”
But former U.S. president Bill Clinton told CNN: “There is a widespread feeling in the world that the current Israeli government may have abandoned the intention of working with the Palestinians to create a state on the West Bank in Gaza and just doesn't want to say it.”
The Palestinians however have been buoyed by about 120 countries that have already bilaterally recognized a state of Palestine or backed such a position.
If the Palestinians fail to win over nine of the 15 Security Council members, any resolution would fail, saving Obama from an embarrassing U.S. veto.
Another option could then be for the U.N. General Assembly to welcome the Palestinians as an enhanced observer non-member state, a status so far enjoyed only by the Vatican.