Kerry in Rome for Talks on Palestinian Statehood Bid

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Rome on Sunday for a flurry of meetings about a looming showdown at the United Nations amid a European-led drive to push moves towards Palestinian statehood.

U.S. officials told reporters accompanying Kerry on his plane that Washington wanted to learn more about the European position, saying the U.S. administration had not yet decided whether to back or veto any U.N. resolution on the issue.

Kerry was first to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, before talks on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a hastily-arranged pre-Christmas diplomatic whirlwind, the top U.S. diplomat will also meet for a few hours Monday in Paris with French, German and British foreign ministers and the new EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

He will then fly to London to meet with the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and the secretary general of the Arab League on Tuesday.

Washington has long opposed unilateral Palestinian moves to win recognition for a state of Palestine at the United Nations, saying it would prejudge the outcome of stalled peace negotiations with Israel.

But officials said they drew a distinction between a unilateral step, and an effort to draw up a multilateral resolution at the U.N. Security Council which would have the backing of many nations.

"It's important to understand that our overall goal here is to hear from and engage with other stakeholders... to hear their views and to the best of our ability work towards a common path forward," a State Department official said.

"We all want to defuse tensions and reduce the potential for violence, we all want to keep open the hope of a two-state solution and we all want to prevent ... an escalation of the violence on the ground."

Acknowledging any resolution on Palestinian statehood would be a "significant step," the U.S. official insisted it was "premature" for Washington to lay out a position since no text yet existed.

Jordan last month circulated a draft Palestinian text setting November 2016 as a deadline for the end of the Israeli occupation.

But the text ran into opposition from the United States because it set a two-year timetable for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the West Bank.

"That's not the way I think that we would look at handling a very complicated security negotiation by mandating a deadline of two years," the State Department official said, asking not to be identified.

Netanyahu on Sunday rejected all talk of withdrawing from east Jerusalem and the West Bank within two years.

Pulling out now would bring "Islamic extremists to the suburbs of Tel Aviv and to the heart of Jerusalem", Netanyahu said, adding that he would raise the issue with Kerry and Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi.

France stepped in last month to try to cobble together along with Britain and Germany a resolution that would win consensus at the 15-member council.

The new text would call for a return to negotiations with a view to achieving a two-state solution by which Israel and a Palestinian state would co-exist.

Amid rising tensions on the ground, the Palestinians are seeking a vote on a resolution by the end of the year.

But the U.S. official said there did not yet appear to be any European consensus on a draft resolution.

"There's a draft, a paper, that the French floated around, but it by no means represents a consensus European position," the official said.

He conceded though that the Europeans felt that with tensions running high and Israeli elections looming in March there was a sense of urgency.

"The real driving sense of urgency is coming from the facts on the ground, the fact that tension is high... the fact that no-one wants this to continue to escalate and potentially explode," said another State Department official.

"These initiatives at the U.N. are not emerging spontaneously from purely political forces, they're driven in very large part by concern that everybody feels about things that are happening on the ground."

European parliaments in Britain, France, Spain, Ireland and Portugal have meanwhile asked their governments to recognize Palestinian statehood -- a move that would bypass negotiations all together.

Kerry is also expected to quiz Lavrov on Moscow's plans for a new round of Syria peace talks to see whether there is a way to bring the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the moderate opposition back to negotiations.

The Russian minister meanwhile will likely raise Russian anger of over a new U.S. bill which gives President Barack Obama the authority to send lethal weapons such as anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

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