The UN Security Council is set to begin tortuous negotiations on the Palestinian bid for UN membership as major powers step up pressure for direct Palestinian-Israeli talks.
Although a vote on the historic bid is not expected for weeks or even months, the US has already threatened to veto the move.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met early on Monday with Najib Mikati, prime minister of Lebanon, which currently holds the rotating chair of the Security Council and has backed the Palestinian bid.
A staunch Israeli ally, the US is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, and the White House has repeatedly said Obama will use that power.
Ahead of Monday's meeting, experts from the 15-member nations started contacts on how the bid will be dealt with, diplomats said. The council must refer the application to a special committee which will make a recommendation.
To pass, the Palestinians need the support of at least nine member nations, which diplomats say will be a struggle.
Six have already thrown their weight behind the bid, seven have not revealed their decision, while Colombia says it will abstain.
US President Barack Obama says the UN bid is an unrealistic shortcut that will not produce real and lasting peace on the ground between the two sides.
But Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, riding a wave of popular support unseen in the West Bank since the late Yasser Arafat, is ruling out new talks without a "complete halt" to Israeli settlement building.
Abbas made history in his people's long quest for statehood as he formally asked the United Nations on Friday to admit Palestine as a full member state, handing over a formal application to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
He was hailed as a conquering hero when he returned to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told NBC's "Meet the Press" programme on Sunday that his advice for Abbas was: "If you want to get to peace, put all your preconditions to the side".
The Quartet - comprising the UN, US, EU and Russia - has been urgently trying to get both sides back to the negotiating table, calling for talks to start within a month, proposals from both sides in three months, major progress in six months and a final deal by the end of 2012.
Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy and former British prime minister, said the precise timings would "give everybody a chance to test the sincerity of the parties".
The Palestinians, who pulled out of the last direct talks in September 2010 after a settlement moratorium was lifted, argue that Israel has already annexed Jerusalem and has been stealing land for the past 20 years.
"We've been negotiating ad nauseum with a process that had no relationship to reality. That's the problem," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian negotiator, told ABC's "This Week" programme.
'Independent Palestinian state'
Since it occupied the West Bank in 1967, Israel has built more than 130 settlements across the territory, which are home to more than 300,000 residents.
Another 200,000 Israelis live in settlement neighbourhoods in occupied east Jerusalem.
Interior ministry figures show the vast majority of West Bank settlers live in eight large settlements which Israel wants to annex in any final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Israel formally considers both sectors of Jerusalem to be its "eternal, indivisible" capital and does not view construction in the east to be settlement activity.
The Palestinians, however, believe east Jerusalem should be the capital of their future state and are fiercely opposed to the extension of Israeli control over the sector.
Abbas told jubilant crowds Sunday he had conveyed their dreams of statehood to the international community with his address to the UN General Assembly and formal submission of the membership bid.
"We went to the United Nations carrying your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your suffering, your vision and your need for an independent Palestinian state," he said.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|