At UN, Mahmoud Abbas puts Israeli-Palestinian conflict center stage again

The UN session this week has largely focused on Iran's nuclear program and Syria’s civil war. But Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reminded others of the challenges for Palestinians.

Richard Drew/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, Thursday, Sept. 27.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations Thursday he will seek an upgrade this year in Palestinians’ official international status – a move opposed by the United States and Israel as a threat to reaching a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Abbas said he would seek “nonmember observer state status” from the UN’s General Assembly, a move that would offer the Palestinians access to additional international venues and recourse to institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian leader painted his initiative as intended to enhance Palestinians’ rights and long struggle for statehood. It also appeared to be an attempt to put the Palestinian issue back on the world’s agenda.

At a UN session largely captured by Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war, Abbas’s speech was a reminder to the global community that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a nagging source of instability and resentment in Arab countries and much of the Muslim world.

Abbas painted a dire picture of deteriorating conditions over the past year in Palestinian territories, going so far as to accuse Israeli officials of “ethnic cleansing” in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem where Arabs have faced eviction.

Israel’s tight control on Palestinian funding and living conditions, he warned, could lead to a collapse of Palestinian governing institutions – an outcome he said should be favored by no one already worried about instability in the region.

While Abbas’s speech received prolonged applause from the UN Assembly, it was curtly dismissed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who followed Abbas to the podium.

“I say to him [Abbas] and I say to you, we cannot solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He also said that “unilateral declarations of statehood” would not lead to a resolution.

Last year, Abbas tried to achieve full statehood for Palestinians through the UN Security Council, but the bid ran into a brick wall of US opposition. Abbas’s effort infuriated President Obama, who had launched several high-profile attempts at restarting the peace process. This year, Abbas has said that, while he wants to achieve “nonmember observer state status” by the end of the year, he will wait until after the US elections to submit a formal request.

The US, agreeing with Israel, insists that only direct talks between the two parties can resolve the conflict and result in a Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reaffirmed this position when she met with Abbas Wednesday evening, according to administration officials.

“We’ve made clear all along our position on this to him publicly, privately, in every way, so there are no surprises on our part,” says one senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have made very clear that our goal is to resume direct talks and that the idea of going to the UN is not the road that takes us there.”

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