UNITED NATIONS - Israel's Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami rejected Palestinian demands for a 2,000-strong U.N. protection force Thursday and said the United States has promised to veto any Security Council resolution to create a force.
The council, under pressure from Palestinian supporters to act quickly, has delayed a discussion of the situation in the Middle East until next Wednesday - the day after the U.S. elections.
The delay was widely seen as a victory for the Clinton administration, which came under fire from Israeli supporters for abstaining on a resolution last month that implicitly accused the Jewish state of using ''excessive force'' against the Palestinians in clashes that began Sept. 28. More than 160 people have been killed in five weeks of violence, the vast majority of them Palestinians.
With a very close presidential race between Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush, diplomats said the Clinton administration wanted to avoid putting the issue in the spotlight again before voters go to the polls on Tuesday.
Last week, the Palestinians asked the council to send troops urgently to ensure the safety and security of its civilians. This week, the Palestinians circulated proposals for a force of 2,000 lightly armed U.N. military observers who would deploy throughout the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.
Ben-Ami said he made it clear to Secretary-General Kofi Annan during an hour-long meeting Thursday ''that there is no need at all for any international force.''
The Palestinians, who accuse Israel of continuing a ''campaign of terror against the Palestinian people,'' want greater U.N. and international involvement. Israel wants the Palestinians to stop the violence, adhere to the agreement reached last month at a U.S.-mediated summit in Egypt, ''and get back to the business of peacemaking,'' Ben-Ami said.
The key to what the Security Council does - or doesn't - do is likely to rest with Annan, who is working for implementation of the agreement reached by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
At Thursday's meeting, Annan and Ben-Ami agreed on the need to fully implement the summit agreement, to restore calm and to create ''the right atmosphere for the resumption of peace negotiations,'' U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
The Netherlands' U.N. Ambassador Peter van Walsum, who just took over the rotating Security Council presidency, said Thursday the council had agreed that next Wednesday's discussion would cover not just the Palestinian proposal or a possible draft resolution on a U.N. force ''but the situation in the Middle East.''
If the Security Council doesn't take any action, the Palestinian U.N. Observer Nasser al-Kidwa has left open the possibility of taking the request for a U.N. force to the General Assembly, where they are no vetoes.
Ben-Ami said if this happens, Israel will try ''to convince all our friends and all reasonable and honest people at the U.N. to vote against it.''