By Tobias Buck in Jerusalem, Financial Times
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, will address the UN General Assembly on Friday next week, setting the stage for a potentially dramatic diplomatic showdown with the Palestinians. He will speak on the same day that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, is due to deliver a landmark speech calling on the global body to support Palestinian statehood.
â€œThe General Assembly is not a place where Israel usually receives a fair hearing,â€ Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday. â€œBut I still decided to tell the truth before anyone who would like to hear it.â€
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The Israeli government, which opposes the Palestinian UN bid, had originally considered sending Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, to New York. Mr Peres is widely seen as a less divisive figure on the international stage than the prime minister. However, a failure by Mr Netanyahu to turn up at the UN next week could also have been interpreted as an unnecessary snub to the UN at a time when Israel is already facing growing diplomatic isolation.
The announcement suggests that the Israeli government now has little faith in the last-ditch effort by US and European negotiators to stop the Palestinian drive for statehood at the UN. According to several officials and diplomats, Mr Abbas on Wednesday rebuffed an alternative â€œpackageâ€ that was drafted and presented by Tony Blair, the international communityâ€™s Middle East envoy.
The deal would have involved a statement by the Middle East Quartet (the US, UN, Russia and the European Union) calling for a return to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The statement would have included a timeline for negotiations and clearer terms of reference than were offered in the past â€“ for example on the likely borders of a future Palestinian state. The package, according to several people involved in the talks, also held out the promise of a UN resolution, though one that would have stopped short of endorsing Palestinian statehood at this point.
Mr Abbas, however, told Mr Blair that the deal on offer was not sufficient. Palestinian officials said it fell short of, among other things, the Palestinian demand for Israel to freeze construction in Jewish West Bank settlements. It was also unclear whether the Israeli government itself was ready to accept the Quartet statement â€“ a key point for Palestinian negotiators.
â€œWe believe these last-minute moves were not for the sake of restarting peace talks, but for the sake of preventing the Palestinians from going to the UN,â€ one Palestinian official based in Ramallah said.
Mr Abbas is still facing strong pressure from senior US officials to step back from the UN move. However, most officials and diplomats believe that there is now little chance of stopping a Palestinian bid for statehood, which could take place either at the UN Security Council or in the UN General Assembly.
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