UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Palestinian leader took his people’s quest for independence to the heart of world diplomacy on Friday, hoping to galvanize their flagging statehood campaign by seeking U.N. recognition of Palestine and sidestepping negotiations that have foundered for nearly two decades under the weight of inflexibility, violence and failure of will.
The bid to recognize a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem – submitted against the will of a U.S. administration that had pressured President Mahmoud Abbas to drop it – laid bare the deep sense of exasperation the Palestinians feel after 44 years of Israeli occupation. International reservations about the move has had the perhaps unintended effect of reenergizing international efforts to seek a negotiated settlement.
After Abbas submitted his formal application, international mediators called on Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations and reach an agreement no later than next year. The “Quartet” – the U.S., European Union, U.N. and Russia – urged both parties to draw up an agenda for peace talks within a month and produce comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the proposal “represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties.” But similar plans have failed to produce a peace agreement in the past, and it was how the two sides could bridge their huge differences and resume talks.
And the Quartet statement was radically different from what diplomats had been hoping to draft since it became clear that Abbas would not back down. U.S. and European officials had been trying to craft a statement that would itself outline parameters of the negotiations, including a reference to borders being based on the 1967 lines and affirm Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
Instead, the Quartet focused on proposing deadlines for steps the two sides should take.
World sympathy for the Palestinian cause was evident from the thunderous applause that greeted Abbas as he mounted the dais in the General Assembly hall to deliver a speech that laid out his grievances against the Israeli occupation and why he felt compelled to take his appeal directly to the United Nations.
In a scathing denunciation of Israel’s settlement policy, Abbas declared that negotiations with Israel “will be meaningless” as long as it continues building on lands the Palestinians claim for that state. Invoking what would be a nightmare for Israel, he went so far as to warn that his government could collapse if the construction persists.
“This policy is responsible for the continued failure of the successive international attempts to salvage the peace process,” said Abbas, who has refused to negotiate until the construction stops. “This settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority and even end its existence.”
The speech papered over any Palestinian culpability for the negotiations stalemate, deadly violence against Israel, the internal rift that has produced dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza, and ignored Jewish links to the Holy Land. Some members of the Israeli delegation, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, walked out of the hall as Abbas approached the podium.
Abbas declared himself willing to immediately return to the bargaining table, but with longstanding conditions attached: Israel must first stop building on lands the Plaesitnians claim for their future state and agree to negotiate borders based on lines it held before capturing the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. Israel rejects those conditions and has defied international pressure to freeze settlement construction. And it has staked out bargaining positions that are extremely distant from anything the Palestinians would accept.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, said his country was “willing to make painful compromises” in its quest for peace.
But while Palestinians “should live in a free state of their own,” he said, “they should be “ready for compromise” and “start taking Israel’s security concerns seriously.”
Netanyahu opposes negotiations based on 1967 lines, saying a return to those frontiers would expose Israel’s heartland to rocket fire from the West Bank. He argued that rocket fire on Israel from evacuated territory in south Lebanon and Gaza showed that territorial compromise would not automatically resolve the conflict.
Talks for all intents and purposes broke down nearly three years ago after Israel went to war in Gaza and prepared to hold national elections that propelled Netanyahu to power for a second time. A last round, backed by the U.S., was launched a year ago, with the ambitious aim of producing a framework accord for a peace deal. But it broke down just three weeks later after an Israeli settlement construction slowdown expired.
The statehood bid would not deliver any immediate changes on the ground: Israel would remain an occupying force in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and continue to restrict access to Gaza, ruled by Palestinian Hamas militants.
Even so, thousands of jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians, watching on outdoor screens across the West Bank, cheered on their president as he submitted his historic request for a U.N. nod. In Nablus, the crowd roared ecstatically when Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, told the General Assembly that he had submitted the request for full U.N. membership.
“We are here celebrating because Abu Mazen is making us a state. We want to have our own state, like any other country,” said Reem al-Masri. The 30-year-old schoolteacher lost a brother and two cousins in fighting with Israel during the second Palestinian uprising against occupation a decade ago.
Abbas, who never enjoyed the popular adulation accorded his predecessor, the iconic Yasser Arafat, has seen his popularity take off over his U.N. move, allowing him to gain ground, at least for the time being, against his Islamic militant Hamas rivals.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon referred the statehood request to the Security Council, where U.S. opposition is expected to shoot it down. The U.S. and Israel have also been pressuring Council members to either vote against the plan or abstain when it comes up for a vote. The vote would require the support of nine of the Council’s 15 members to pass, but even if the Palestinians could line up that backing, a U.S. veto is assured.
The Security Council will meet on Monday to examine the Palestinian membership request.
The Palestinians have said that in the absence of a positive outcome in the Council, they will turn to the General Assembly, which would be expected to approve a lesser status upgrade from permanent observer to nonmember observer state.
While more modest, this option would be valuable to the Palestinians because of the implicit recognition that negotiations would be based on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967. It would also give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which Israel fears would target them unfairly.
Hanging heavy in the air was the threat of renewed violence over frustrated Palestinian aspirations, in spite of Abbas’ vow – perceived by Israeli security officials as genuine – to prevent Palestinian violence. The death on Friday of 35-year-old Issam Badram, in gunfire that erupted after rampaging Jewish settlers destroyed trees in a Palestinian grove, was the type of incident that both Palestinians and Israelis had feared would spark widespread violence.
It was not clear how serious Abbas was about his very public threat to dissolve his limited self-rule government, born of the landmark accords Israel and the Palestinians signed in the 1990s. Dissolution would put 150,000 Palestinians out of work and cause utter chaos. Israel, which is skeptical of such talk, would be saddled with the welfare and policing of 2.5 million unwanted Palestinian subjects.
Associated Press writer Tarek el-Tablawy contributed to this report from the United Nations.