Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a request for full recognition of a state of Palestine at the United Nations Friday, defying the United States and setting in motion a high-stakes diplomatic battle that will roil global politics and a Middle East already in turmoil.
Mr. Abbas framed the request as a matter of international justice and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a long-open wound whose time for healing has come, especially when other people in the region are realizing new freedoms.
“At a time when the Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy – the Arab Spring – the time has come for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence,” Mr. Abbas proclaimed in an address to the UN General Assembly. The mid-day speech followed Abbas’s submission of the statehood request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The formal application for statehood, which includes specific reference to a Palestine based on 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, will be transferred by Secretary General Ban to the Security Council for deliberation. Palestinian officials said Friday they expect the application for statehood to require a number of weeks of deliberation in the Security Council.
Push for new peace talks
The Palestinian application for statehood occurred as diplomats, including those from the US and the European Union, continued their frantic work to find a formula for nudging the Israelis and Palestinians back to direct negotiations.
The “Quartet” of powers promoting a negotiated settlement – the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN – issued a statement Friday afternoon calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down "within an month" at a preparatory meeting to set an agenda for direct negotiations. The Quartet said it would expect talks to have several interim goals but to arrive at an agreement no later than the end 2012. Under the Quartet's formula, the parties would offer "comprehensive proposals" on borders and security within three months and called on them to make "substantial progress" within six months.
The statement acknowledges the Palestinians' submission of a statehood application to the Security Council, but offers no insight into how the application will be handled. The difficulty the Quartet had in hammering out a statement that was weeks in the crafting was an indication of the rough road ahead for efforts to restart peace talks.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US is "very pleased" the Quartet had reached an agreement for restarting direct negotiations "without delay or preconditions."
Leaving unaddressed the Palestinian statehood application, she repeated the Obama administration's view that "a just and lasting peace can only come through direct negotiations."
Also addressing the press, Quartet representative Tony Blair said he thought the Palestinian bid in the Security Council and direct negotiations could be "combined" and proceed concurrently.
Abbas insisted in his speech that the statehood bid is not closing the door on resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, but he repeated the conditions for returning to talks that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already rejected.
“We adhere to the option of negotiating a lasting solution to the conflict,” Abbas said. “I declare that the Palestine Liberation Organization is ready to return immediately to the negotiating table on the basis of the adopted terms of reference … and a complete cessation of settlement activities.”
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Mr. Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, prompting international media to label the two appearances as a “duel” and a “high-noon shootout.”
In his speech, Netanyahu focused on security issues, saying that Israel cannot risk its very existence by moving ahead on peace without firm security commitments and allowances for Israel to maintain a security presence in critical strategic areas of any future Palestinian state.
“All these potential cracks in Israel’s security have to be sealed before a Palestinian state is created, not after,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu rejected the conventional argument that thwarting the statehood bid of moderates Palestinians only plays into the hands of the region’s radicals, countering that Israeli compromises in the past have only emboldened radicals including Hamas and Hezbollah.
Saying Israel cannot afford to respond to the changes in the region with wishful thinking, the Israeli leader said his first obligation is to defend against “the militant Islamic storm that threatens us.”
There was little doubt who won the PR battle in the General Assembly, a body that is historically sympathetic to the Palestinians and hostile to Israeli occupation of Arab lands.
Abbas received one of his sustained rounds of applause when he declared, “This is a moment of truth and my people are waiting to hear the answer of the world.” When he concluded his speech with announcement of his formal submission for statehood and by waiving a copy of the application above his head, about half of the hall rose in a standing ovation.
But Netanyahu also received several rounds of warm applause – most notably when he declared that, once a negotiated settlement of the conflict is reached, “Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state to the UN – we will be the first.”
Abbas building his legacy?
Despite the list of leaders who focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the UN this week, Abbas is likely to leave the most lasting mark, some analysts say, because his appeal was the most universal.
“His speech will have the most resonance because his words were addressed to the widest audience,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.
In their speeches, Netanyahu and even President Obama were primarily targeting their domestic audiences, he said, while Abbas was “speaking to the Arab and Muslim worlds.”
But Mr. Shaikh says that Abbas, who has talked of retiring, is also looking to establish his legacy, especially when the international environment does not look to be conducive to serious peace talks any time soon.
The US has vowed to veto any Palestinian statehood initiative in the Security Council, but it would also dearly like to find a way to avoid casting a vote that US officials acknowledge would put the US in a bad light in the Middle East and beyond.
In his address, Abbas made a veiled reference to President Obama’s ambitious but failed foray into Mideast peace talks, noting that “a year ago ... distinguished leaders in this hall addressed the stalled peace efforts in our region ... with high hopes for a a new round of final-status negotiations.”
But he noted that talks Mr. Obama launched in Washington in September 2010 broke down soon thereafter, and a year later he said the time has come to acknowledge that the traditional approach to the conflict can no longer work
“It is no longer possible to redress the issue of the blockage of the horizon of the peace talks with the same means and methods that have been repeatedly tried and proven unsuccessful over the past years.”