UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. - The Middle East conflict created the perfect diplomatic storm over New York Monday for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's arrival at the United Nations for meetings on Libya and Third World health.
Frenzied behind-the-scenes diplomacy was under way there to avert the expected showdown over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to ask the UN to recognize his people's statehood.
The United States has said it will veto any declaration if it is brought before the powerful Security Council, raising the possibility that Abbas could shift gears and bring the bid before the larger General Assembly, where it would have more chance of success, but carry less weight.
The U.S. favours the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but is siding with Israel in opposing Abbas's UN bid, stoking fears of renewed violence in the Middle East.
Harper has called the Palestinian plan "unhelpful" to the peace process and said Canada will oppose it at the UN.
As a staunch ally of the U.S. and Israel, the Harper government found itself on the periphery of the jockeying Monday as Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Liberman stopped in Ottawa on his way to the UN for talks with his Canadian counterpart, John Baird.
"Liberman plans to tell his colleagues that those interested in preserving the chance of achieving an understanding between Israel and the Palestinians must make it clear to the Palestinian leadership that (the) international community will reject any unilateral initiative and will only support an agreement reached through negotiations between the parties," said the Israeli foreign ministry in a statement.
Canadian officials described Liberman's 30-minute discussion with Baird as comprehensive and said Baird "confirmed our desire to see a return to negotiations over unilateral action" that is being pursued by the Palestinians.
The visiting Israeli minister then joined Baird, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver for lunch. Kent and Oliver represent ridings in the Toronto area with large Jewish populations.
Baird is in New York this week with Harper and will be pressing the Israeli case against the Palestinian ambitions in a flurry of his own meetings.
"He'll be there making our position known and monitoring developments," said a senior Canadian government official on background.
"Many, many, many balls in the air on this."
With Abbas set to address the General Assembly on Friday, the so-called "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at persuading the Palestinians to drop the UN bid and resume talks with Israel.
On Monday, Abbas said he has been under "tremendous pressure" in recent days, but that proposals for how new talks would proceed were not acceptable to him.
Abbas left open the possibility of a shift in strategy, suggesting he might opt for the lesser option of seeking the approval of the General Assembly instead of going directly to Security Council.
Abbas is seeking UN membership for "Palestine" — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Abbas does not control the Gaza Strip, which installed the anti-Israel militants Hamas as its government in 2007.
Canada was one of the first countries to cut aid to the Palestinians after Hamas came to power, but it was not clear if there would be a repeat of that if Abbas is not dissuaded from his current course of action.
Abbas told reporters Monday that he has received no direct indication that the U.S. will cut aid. But congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have said that $500 million in economic and security spending could be cut if Abbas doesn't abandon his UN bid.
"It's not a matter of threats, but they (the Americans) said that things will be very difficult after September ... We don't know to what extent. We will know later," Abbas told reporters Monday en route to New York.
The Middle East brinkmanship was threatening to overshadow Harper's two main purposes for putting in an appearance at the UN on Tuesday: a meeting on the future of Libya and an accountability session on his signature child and maternal health initiative that he championed at last year's G8 in Muskoka.
Harper will meet with his NATO counterparts for discussions on how to support the National Transitional Council, now that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has been deposed and is still at large.
Harper will also co-chair a meeting with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete on preventing the needless deaths of poor children and mothers in the Third World.
Harper and Kikwete were appointed by the UN to oversee an accountability commission to prevent corruption from siphoning away funds.
"This is about the future, the future of families, of communities, countries and indeed ultimately of humanity," Harper said in January, at the accountability commission's first meeting in Geneva.
"We understand that we must strive to build support not just for our noble objectives, but also for our commitment to the highest standards of oversight and accountability for the dollars that we are dedicating to them."
Harper secured $7.3 billion in contributions at Muskoka, $5 billion of it from G8 partners. The pot grew substantially one year ago at the UN's Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York, when another $40 billion was added by the Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health.
Aid groups converging on New York this week are pressing for more.
Save the Children released a report Monday that said 350 million children in Asia and Africa will never see a health worker in their lives.
Aid groups planned a major funding push in New York this week to help address the shortfall of 3.5 million health workers globally. The extra midwives and community health workers, among others, could save millions of lives, they said.
"The Canadian government has been a leader in the global maternal and child health initiative through its G8 commitments as well as through the leadership of Prime Minister Harper as co-chair of the UN Commission on Information and Accountability for Women's and Children's Health," said Patricia Erb, CEO of Save the Children.
"All world leaders must continue the push. We know what works. More health workers, within reach of every children, more vaccinations and an end to child malnutrition because while fewer children are dying compared to 20 years ago, more than seven million children a year could still be saved."