Continued from page 1

“So as you know, we don’t believe in recognition without negotiations, but we think that negotiations are the way, the right way, to peace and a two-state solution where the Palestinians have the state they deserve and the Israelis the security they deserve,” Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas said Tuesday after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Israeli officials believe the EU’s 27-member bloc is increasingly coalescing around French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s call for the General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinian status to “nonmember observer state.”

Still, concern remains that Britain, France, or Portugal could use an U.S. veto as cover.

“The Europeans have been known for hiding behind America’s large back,” the Israeli diplomatic official told The Times. “So they might come to us or the American delegation and say, ‘The Americans will do the responsible thing, but we have interests in the Arab world and Muslim minorities. Just know that we are with you on this.’ It wouldn’t be the first time it has happened.”

On Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton tried to sound an optimistic note on a peace process that increasingly looked moribund, saying that General Assembly speeches Friday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “shared a desire for peace” and “focused on the need to go to negotiations and the wish to end the conflict.”

She also joined the U.S. in condemning Israel’s approval of hundreds of new housing units in a disputed neighborhood of East Jerusalem, saying that “settlement activity threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution and runs contrary to the Israeli stated commitment to resume negotiations.”

Last September, the Palestinians walked out of shortlived U.S.-sponsored peace talks last September after Israeli let a 10-month settlement moratorium lapse. They have made freezing Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a precondition of returning to the table.

They also want Israel to accept President Obama’s May formulation that the borders of the two states be based on Israel’s pre-1967 frontiers with “mutually agreed swaps.”

Mr. Netanyahu lambasted the preconditions Tuesday in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, saying the Palestinians are seeking to “cherry-pick one of the final core issues and put [it] up front as a pre-condition” and that he “could do the same” with his own demands.

“I haven’t done that because I want to get into direct negotiations and not create obstructions to entering them,” he said.

The Quartet - Middle East peacemaking committee consisting of the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia - last week issued a statement calling on the parties to resume negotiations within four weeks with the goal of achieving an agreement by the end of 2012.

But longtime Middle East observers are deeply skeptical that such a goal can be met or that the U.S. investment in the issue could help.

“Let’s be clear: There is almost nothing that the president can do to get a deal under the current circumstances, and if you’re a supporter of Barack Obama, the last thing you want him doing is expending what little political capital he has on issue that’s going to prove unproductive,” said Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center public policy scholar and former U.S. Middle East peace mediator. “The peace process is going to be there after the next election. Mr. President, you may not.”

In February, the U.S. was forced to veto a Palestinian resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal and the other 14 Security Council members sided with the Palestinians - a spectacle that, if repeated, could hurt the U.S. in the eyes of an increasingly assertive Arab world.

“Whatever the vote in Security Council, what the U.S. wants to avoid is a picture of Susan Rice with her hand up that would be spread across the Arab world, where it will diminish our already battered credibility,” said Mr. Miller, author of the forthcoming book “Can America Have Another Great President?”