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Palestinians hold candles during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in support of president Mahmoud Abbas's bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations, on Sept. 20, 2011. (MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinians hold candles during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in support of president Mahmoud Abbas's bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations, on Sept. 20, 2011. (MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

Mideast Conflict

Harper to Palestinians: Talk to Israel, not UN, about sovereignty Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has admonished Palestinians to give up campaigning at the UN and return to peace talks if they want a sovereign state – while his foreign minister worked feverishly behind the scenes to stop the issue from coming to a vote.

The Prime Minister went to the United Nations on Tuesday for a high-level summit on Libya, but the endgame there is being overshadowed in New York by a Palestinian delegation’s push to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state.

And although Mr. Harper will return to Ottawa on Wednesday without addressing the UN General Assembly, he waded into the issue forcefully on Tuesday, appearing to place the onus on the Palestinians to re-launch peace talks with Israel.

“I think there’s no likelihood of this initiative by the Palestinian Authority doing anything to further the peace process. I think it’s possible that it could be counter-productive,” Mr. Harper told reporters outside the UN meeting on Libya. “But I would say, if the Palestinian Authority is serious about establishing a sovereign state, the method to do that is not a declaration here at the United Nations. It’s to get back at the negotiating table and negotiate peace with Israel.”

Pro-Israel groups in Canada support Mr. Harper’s stand, but his comments earned a sharp reply from envoys of the Palestinian Authority.

“My comment to the Prime Minister of Canada is that the Palestinians are the party that’s mainly interested in the negotiations,” said Linda Sobeh Ali, the head of the Palestinian Authority delegation in Ottawa. “We’ve been at the table for 20 years, and we’ve hit a roadblock in the road map. And that’s why we’re trying to rescue the negotiations.”

The Palestinian Authority and Israel blame each other for the breakdown in talks. Israel insists the Palestinians set unacceptable conditions, and the Palestinians say Israel’s government intends to let talks drag on without resolution while continuing to allow new settlements in the West Bank. Now the Palestinian Authority says recognition of a Palestinian state would provide a basis for peace talks, while Israel asserts it would poison such efforts.

But the UN campaign has raised the prospect of a showdown vote that is uncomfortable for many western nations. Washington and European countries fear the split over the Palestinian issue will taint diplomatic efforts on other issues in the region as they try to respond to changing regimes, protests and rebellions, and government’s that crack down on dissent. U.S. President Barack Obama is facing Republican critics who say he should be tougher and threaten to cut off aid to the Palestinians. He could also have to place Washington in a small minority by vetoing the resolution in the UN security council even though most countries voted for lesser-status recognition in the larger UN general assembly.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned in his speech at the Libya conference that impasse in the Middle East could poison the democracy movements of the Arab Spring. He urged world leaders to be “careful that 60-year-old conflicts did not poison the construction of democracy.”

Mr. Harper’s forceful opposition to the Palestinian resolution might be his sole public foray into the debate. He won’t address the United Nations General Assembly later this week, leaving Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to speak for Canada next week.

Mr. Baird is booking a heavy schedule of meetings in New York this week with foreign counterparts to press for a plan to avoid a UN vote on recognition of a Palestinian state. One proposal is for the Security Council to delay a decision accompanied by some mechanism for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to return to talks.

“We are working to secure meetings with international partners to join Canada in opposing unilateral action as that is not helpful,” a senior Canadian official said.

Mr. Baird has requested a meeting later this week with the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, sources said. And on Monday in Ottawa, he met Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is crucial to any plan that would renew peace talks because he leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, a conservative coalition partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government.

Shimon Fogel, the chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish affairs, a major Canadian lobby group, said he appreciates Mr. Harper’s “clear” position on the Palestinian resolution, but senses from talks with Canadian officials they are working for some kind of “production” resolution that heads off a UN vote. “I think Canada shares the view that it would be best if confrontation could be avoided,” he said.

An interesting flight to New York for Baird

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s early-morning flight from Ottawa to New York carried more than one person who was hurrying to New York to lobby on the issue of UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Across the aisle from Mr. Baird sat Shimon Fogel, the chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish affairs. They chatted for much of the flight. When the plane arrived in New York, Mr. Fogel introduced Mr. Baird to Yasser Abbas, the son of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had been sitting a few rows back.

Mr. Abbas, a Palestinian businessman who has been a Canadian citizen for more than 20 years, expressed bitter disappointment that Canada is “not supporting the Palestinian cause” but said he didn’t raise it with Mr. Baird. Instead, he said, he reminded the foreign minister that his father has invited him to Ramallah in the West Bank.

“I told him it’s something he should take seriously,” Mr. Abbas said in an interview. “He said that he is planning to come very soon.”

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