Mahmoud Abbas’ bold bid for U.N recognition of Palestinian statehood is doomed to fail but has won him admiration at home and re-energized international efforts to seek a negotiated settlement.
Thousands of jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians watching on outdoor screens across the West Bank, cheered on their president Friday 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 U.N General Assembly that he had submitted the request for full U.N. membership.
In New York, Abbas’ speech was interrupted repeatedly by thunderous applause as he told the largely sympathetic gathering of world leaders that the Palestinians had had enough of negotiations that have foundered for nearly two decades and yielded few tangible results for the millions who live under Israeli occupation.
The new Palestine he envisioned would be in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967.
“It is a moment of truth and my people are waiting to hear the answer of the world,” Abbas said. “At a time when the Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy - the Arab Spring - the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence.”
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. - which maintains longterm peace can only be reached through negotiations - 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 three main newspapers splashed pictures of the joyous scenes across their front pages under proud headlines about the submission of the U.N. bid.
“President Abbas: the hour of the Palestinian Spring... the hour of independence,” roared al-Quds daily over a picture of Abbas brandishing the formal membership request.
In al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper, columnist Adel Abdul Rahman lavished praise on Abbas for his U.N. address, underlining the unprecedented boost in popularity the unassuming president is currently enjoying in the West Bank.
“President Abu Mazen’s speech was great and brave by all standards, as the leader of a liberation movement, and as the president of the Arab Palestinian people and as a statesman,” he wrote, using Abbas's nom de guerre.
“The President: Palestine is resurrected,” wrote al-Ayyam, which also carried a cartoon depicting a soaring eagle with a breastplate in the colors of the Palestinian flag over the logo "The state of Palestine."
But behind the pride in a rare moment of optimism in a territory where peace has seemed far from reach for many years, difficult questions remained about what will follow the historic bid for Palestinian U.N. state membership.
For all the jubilation in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip was left squarely out of the party. The coastal territory’s Hamas rulers, which oppose the bid, reached an agreement with Abbas’s Fatah party to halt the organization of any rallies in support of the membership request.
Calls to resume negotiations
Shortly 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 of Mideast negotiators - 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. They would like to see a final deal by the end of next year.
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.
Abbas’ determination to press ahead with the statehood application appeared to be reflected in the Quartet's statement, which was radically different from what diplomats had been hoping to draft. U.S. and European officials had been trying to craft a statement that would have outlined parameters of the negotiations, including a reference to borders being based on the prewar lines and affirm Israel's identity as a Jewish state - something the Palestinians have resisted.
Instead, the Quartet focused on proposing deadlines for steps the two sides should take.
The warmth with which Abbas was received by the overwhelming majority at the General Assembly contrasted sharply with the harsh words directed at him by Israel’s premier, who told officials that earlier concessions made by his country had only brought the threat of militant Islam closer to its doorstep.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the time was over for negotiations for negotiating's sake and that it was the moment to discuss 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.”
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 Palestinian people, he said, “are waiting to hear the answer of the world. Will it allow Israel to continue its occupation?”
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.
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' conditions attached
Abbas declared himself willing to immediately return to the bargaining table, but with longstanding conditions attached: Israel must first stop building on lands the Palestinians 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.
Netanyahu, addressing the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, said his country was “willing to make painful compromises” in its quest for peace.
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.
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.
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.