DIPLOMATIC efforts to restart Middle East peace talks intensified last night as world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly, with the Israeli prime minister saying he was willing to have a face-to-face meeting with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The chances of success were no clearer, but there was growing urgency as Palestinians showed no sign of backing down from their bid to seek full membership of the UN.
The demand by the Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu that Mr Abbas "begin negotiations in New York and continue them in Jerusalem and Ramallah" was met with a cool initial response from the opposite side, since it came with no indication that the Israelis were going to move on any of the Palestinians' key demands.
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there had been no progress either in talks within the 'quartet' of Middle East negotiators -- the US, the European Union, the UN and Russia -- about a common policy on the Palestinian UN application.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama came under intense domestic pressure from his potential opponents in next year's presidential election to concede no ground to the Palestinians. The US has said it will veto full membership of the UN for the Palestinians, but to do so poses serious dangers for America in the Middle East. It could be outvoted in a poll of the full General Assembly, which could grant the Palestinian Authority an upgrade from its current status as a permanent observer.
The Palestinians said last night they were confident a majority of the Security Council would vote in favour of Palestinian statehood.
Before leaving for New York, Mr Netanyahu told a gathering of his Likud party that "the path to peace comes through negotiations and not through unilateral acts. The way to get to the end of negotiations is to start them and stick with them. That's what Israel wanted, but the Palestinians refused."
His suggestion of face-to-face talks was met by a public reiteration of Palestinian preconditions from the authority's Foreign Minister, Riad al-Malki. He said Israel must halt settlement building on occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, and agree to a timeframe for talks and international guarantees to aid their progress.
Mr Hague told reporters that the objective of the quartet was to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, as he headed into a meeting with Mr Abbas. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said yesterday that "the status quo is untenable. The only way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem is direct negotiations". (© Independent News Service)