Europe ups pressure on US over Mideast

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France said Thursday that European nations are considering recognizing a Palestinian state, heightening pressure on the United States and Israel to relaunch the Middle East peace process.

European ambassadors at the UN Security Council joined the Palestinian envoy in calling for "bold" US leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Recognition of the state of Palestine is one of the options which France is considering, with its European partners" in a bid to relaunch the peace process," French ambassador Gerard Araud told a Security Council debate on the Middle East.

Britain also indicated that state recognition could be considered.

"Nothing is off the table with regard to recognition in September," said a British spokesman. "But nor are we specifying what conditions would be necessary, or sufficient, to recognize, or indeed not to recognize -- we'll have to look at all relevant factors at the time."

Pressure has mounted on US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid heightened Palestinian-Israeli hostilities and a US block on European attempts to break the deadlock.

Obama will soon make a speech on the Middle East conflict, diplomats said while adding that details on US plans remain vague.

"We expect that in a couple of weeks the president will have an opportunity to talk in more depth about the Middle East and North Africa," a senior US official said ahead of Thursday's UN Security Council debate.

At the meeting, US ambassador Susan Rice reinforced US calls for the Palestinian leadership to return to direct talks, frozen since last September amid recriminations over Israeli settlement building.

"Negotiations between the parties remain the only path to a solution that resolves all issues and establishes a sovereign state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel," Rice told the Security Council, without mentioning Obama's plans.

Netanyahu is to outline his bid to tempt the Palestinians back to talks during a US visit in May. The US Republican party leadership has invited the Israeli leader to address a joint meeting of the US Senate and House of Representatives.

Israel's ambassador Meron Reuben insisted there could only be peace through face-to-face talks.

"It cannot be imposed from the outside," Reuben said. "And any lasting peace agreement must be built on the core principles of mutual recognition and security."

Obama last year set a target of September 2011 for an accord to set up a Palestinian state. But talks between the rivals ended within weeks after Israel refused to extend a moratorium on settlements.

The United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution in February which would have condemned Israel's settlements.

It also frustrated a plan by Britain, France and Germany to get the diplomatic Quartet -- the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations -- to set out the parameters for a peace accord, including setting out frontiers and the future of Jerusalem.

The Europeans had hoped a Quartet statement would tempt the Palestinians back to talks. But the United States blocked a meeting planned for Berlin on April 15.

"We are looking forward to the speech President Obama will give on the region," Germany's UN ambassador Peter Wittig told the Security Council. "Strong US leadership is required."

"Risks are growing and chances are dwindling," Wittig added. "We must overcome the deadlock and re-establish a credible political process -- well in advance of September deadlines, otherwise we might face serious consequences."

Amid the diplomatic standoff, increased rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza and counter-attacks by the Israeli military have only been halted with an uneasy and unofficial truce.

The Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, called for "bold leadership" by the United States. Mansour said US backing for setting out the conditions for a peace accord would "seriously contribute to revival of the political process."

If the peace efforts remain deadlocked, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said he will in September seek recognition at the UN General Assembly for an independent state.

© 2011 AFP

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