PARIS France on Thursday indicated it would support efforts by the Palestinians to secure a diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations in a quest for greater international recognition.
Frustrated that their bid for full U.N. membership failed in the U.N. Security Council last year amid U.S. opposition, the Palestinians have launched a watered-down bid for recognition as a "non-member state", similar to the Vatican's U.N. status.
This request can be approved by the U.N. General Assembly, where Washington has no veto, and seems certain to pass.
Without specifically saying which way France would vote, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hinted at support.
"I would like to remind you of campaign pledge number 59 of ... President Francois Hollande, which said that there would be an international recognition of a Palestinian state," Fabius told members of the French Senate. A French government source said the comment was intended to indicate that France was leaning towards voting for the Palestinian request.
The proposal, on which the General Assembly is due to vote this month, would recognise Palestinian statehood implicitly and could also grant access to bodies such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where the Palestinians could file complaints against Israel.
However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seeking explicit approval from European powers to strengthen his position, knowing that a 'yes' vote would anger Israel and the United States and perhaps make future talks on a two-state solution more difficult.
The United States says Palestinian statehood must be achieved by negotiation and has called on Abbas to return to peace talks that collapsed in 2010 over Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament on Thursday: "While there is any chance of achieving a return to talks in the coming months, we continue to advise President Abbas against attempts to win Palestinian observer state status.
"We judge that this would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority."
During a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 31, Hollande said he regretted "the temptation of the Palestinian Authority to go to the General Assembly to get what it couldn't through negotiations".
But Fabius, who met Abbas last weekend amid attempts to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in their Gaza conflict, appeared to be signalling a change of tack.
Abbas's proposal comes at a time when peace talks with Israel show no sign of resuming.
"France is a friend of Israel and the Palestinian people and is defending peace, which means the security of Israel and the right of the Palestinians to have a viable democratic and peaceful state," Fabius said.
The government of president Nicolas Sarkozy broke from its closest allies last year by voting in favour of giving the Palestinians full membership of the U.N.'s cultural agency UNESCO. It had also promised to support Abbas if he opted to seek non-member status.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey)