After the EU on Monday passed unprecedented sanctions against Iran's oil industry and central bank, officials in Jerusalem believe Europe will now turn its attention to advancing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to arrive in the region Tuesday to monitor talks being held in Jordan between the two sides, the first direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians since September 2010, when talks broke down after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to renew a moratorium on settlement construction.
Ashton was expected to meet with Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem, and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, German news agency DPA reported. During her visit, which is to conclude Thursday, Ashton is also expected to make a stop in the Gaza Strip, EU officials told DPA.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also expected to arrive in Israel in coming days to discuss the peace process and regional developments with top officials.
The Palestinians have threatened to abandon the talks in Amman if Israel does not clarify its position on borders and security by Thursday. Israel insists that it has until March to submit a document detailing its positions, and wants negotiations to continue until then.
Head Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Netanyahu's envoy to the talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, met for the fourth time in Amman this week. During the meeting, Israel rejected a demand by Erekat to release 21 Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails, including Hamas members and jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.
The two negotiating teams are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday. The Prime Minister's Office says the upcoming meeting is a litmus test that will determine whether the Palestinians are interested in advancing negotiations or improving their position in a "blame game" against Israel, and promoting unilateral actions in the international arena.
However, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on Monday that Security Council dynamics were no more favorable now to the Palestinian bid for full U.N. membership than they were last year, despite a partial change in the council makeup.
The Palestinian Authority applied for U.N. membership last September. But a committee to consider the application failed to reach a consensus, and the Palestinians have not so far requested a formal vote in the Security Council. There were mixed reports about whether the Palestinians could garner nine out of the 15 votes in the council, the minimum required for the resolution to pass. At the time diplomats said Palestinians would get only eight votes in support, with other countries voting against or abstaining.
The issue for the Palestinians last year was not whether their application would get council approval -- since the U.S. said it would veto such a move -- but whether they could score a moral victory and force Washington to use its veto by winning nine votes in favor from other members.
Addressing a Jewish audience in New York, Rice said that since the committee's report, the application had "essentially stayed there for the time being."
"I presume that is because the Palestinians decided that, given the likely voting outcome in the council, it wasn't timely to push it to a vote," she told the governing board of the American Jewish Committee. "The fact is, nobody knows for sure what the Palestinians will choose to do."
Asked whether the replacement of five members of the 15-nation council as of Jan. 1 might affect the issue, Rice said, "I think that we are roughly in the same place now as we were last year, and potentially even in a better position."
Newcomer Azerbaijan is thought likely to support the Palestinian application, whereas its predecessor, Bosnia, was expected to abstain. But Guatemala is unlikely to follow its predecessor, Brazil, in backing the Palestinians. The other three newcomers account for no change in the final tally.
The Palestinians can either push for a Security Council vote anyway, take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly -- which cannot confer membership but can upgrade their status as observers -- or do nothing as contacts continue with Israel over the possible resumption of peace talks.
Rice reaffirmed the U.S. line that a Palestinian state would only result from direct negotiations with Israel, not "through a short-cut at the United Nations."
In her remarks to the AJC, Rice stressed U.S. backing at the U.N. for Israel. Some U.S. Republicans have accused U.S. President Barack Obama of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
With the U.S. election campaign heating up, one of Rice's deputies spoke publicly last week about the need to reform U.N. practices, addressing another concern of Republicans, who charge the Obama administration is too close to the world body.