Israel's prime minister on Sunday urged the Palestinians to avoid unilateral action and resume peace talks, a reflection of growing concern that the Palestinian leadership may be inching toward a "Plan B" in which they seek international recognition of an independent state without Israeli agreement.
Talks have stalled, just weeks after their launch, following Israel's decision to resume full-fledged settlement building in the West Bank after a 10-month period of restrictions. The Palestinians say they cannot negotiate with Israel unless the curbs are renewed.
As the stalemate drags on, the Palestinians have said they are considering sidestepping Israel by seeking U.N. Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
At the start of the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to "honor their obligation to engage in direct negotiations."
"I think any attempt to circumvent it by going to international bodies isn't realistic and won't advance true peacemaking in any way," Netanyahu said. "Peace will be achieved only through direct talks."
Netanyahu said he was in close contact with U.S. mediators in an effort to revive the talks, which were launched with great fanfare at the White House on Sept. 2. He said he remained committed to reaching the outlines of a deal within one year, the target set by the White House.
The Palestinians say they share that objective, but that Israeli settlement construction on lands they claim for their state raises questions about Netanyahu's commitment to peacemaking.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected Netanyahu's criticism, saying Israel is acting unilaterally through settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"We don't want to engage in unilateral action," he said, calling on Netanyahu to "stop unilateral actions and engage as a partner in peace by stopping settlement activity."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn't expected to take any unilateral action before September 2011. But he already has instructed top aides to begin preparing for options other than a negotiated deal.
The chief alternative, Palestinian officials say, is to pursue U.N. Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Such validation would not immediately force Israel to end its occupation of disputed lands. But it could boost the Palestinians' leverage in the diplomatic arena. And Palestinians hope it would cause Israel to curtail its military operations on that territory, too.
But unilateral Palestinian action could also set Israel free to take its own one-sided steps, like annexing the West Bank.
And Washington is unlikely to support unilateral Palestinian action because of the uproar it would create in Israel and among its Jewish supporters in the U.S. It also could further complicate the situation in Gaza, which already has broken off from Abbas' Palestinian Authority and is now run by the rival Islamic militant group Hamas.
While Netanyahu says he's committed to Obama's timeframe, Israelis, too, are skeptical that the two sides can reach an agreement within a year and are also setting their sights lower.
One scaled-back alternative would give the Palestinians a state in parts of the West Bank, with international safeguards about a future deal.
Decisions on core issues — like resolving the competing claims to Jerusalem and determining the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees from the war surrounding Israel's 1948 creation — would be put off.
The Palestinians adamantly reject such a scenario, fearing that a temporary arrangement falling short of their demands would become permanent.
Other proposals include annexing the West Bank and unilateral pullouts from some parts of that territory, like Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
Both sides appear to be biding time until Nov. 2 midterm elections in the U.S. It remains unclear how the election will affect the peace efforts.
The Palestinians are hoping that once the bruising campaign season is behind him, Obama might be freer to apply pressure. Some Israeli officials think that if recent polls are borne out and Republicans take one or both houses of Congress, a chastened president might be too busy or weakened to pressure Israel.