(Updates with Netanyahu comments in seventh and eighth paragraphs.)
Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ruled out a return to “business as usual” in peace negotiations with Israel as he presented his case for recognition of Palestine as a member state to a cheering United Nations audience.
A minute-long standing ovation erupted when Abbas arrived at the podium in the General Assembly. He was halted at least 10 times by applause, most thunderously when he said “enough, enough, enough” and when he evoked his deceased predecessor, Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat.
“It is neither possible, nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual, as if everything is fine,” said Abbas, shortly after giving his application letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for Security Council consideration. “I do not believe anyone with a shred of conscience can reject our application for full admission.”
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking an hour afterwards, asked his counterpart to meet him while both leaders were in New York. Calling on the Palestinians to drop their demand for Israel to freeze new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu said the UN is a “theater of the absurd” for its anti-Israel bias.
For the 76-year-old Abbas, the application for UN membership -- which the U.S. is adamant about blocking -- gave him leverage to focus the attention of world leaders on what has been a moribund peace process. It triggered intense diplomacy over future moves to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Middle East Quartet
The so-called Middle East Quartet mediating group yesterday released a statement laying out a new timeline for peace talks, in which Israelis and Palestinians would reach a final status agreement that would end the conflict by December 2012. Neither side has said publicly whether it supports the plan.
Netanyahu said if the proposal meant going to direct negotiations without preconditions, he welcomed it. “I’ve been calling for this for 2 1/2 years,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Channel Two television.
The Israeli leader also expressed satisfaction at the failure of the Palestinians to win a quick vote in the Security Council, and confidence that talks will eventually be resumed.
“I will be the one who reaches a peace agreement between two nations, one of which will be a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians indicated they were unlikely to accept the Quartet proposal. Speaking to reporters on his flight back home, Abbas said that while he was still studying the proposal he “will not deal with any initiative” that doesn’t demand a halt to Israeli settlement construction, AP reported. The Quartet statement makes no reference to settlement building.
“Going to the UN Security Council was always going to be high risk, not least because it unavoidably meant confronting the U.S. administration,” said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “It was valid as a means of seeking to change the rules of the game in which the ‘peace process,’ 20 years old this year, has been all process and no peace.”
Ahead of his arrival at the start of the week, Abbas’s mission was clear. His UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, said his boss was going to be the “most significant game in town.” Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who typically grabs headlines by hurling insults at Israel, was overshadowed this week.
Stuck to Plan
Often described as indecisive, Abbas stuck to his plan this week even as the U.S. and Israel leaned on those Security Council members favoring the statehood initiative to abstain from voting. The U.S. veto pledge notwithstanding, the Palestinians are still at least one vote short of the nine needed for membership.
“There is a little hope now, a little national respect,” Fares Kadouri, a senior official in Abbas’s Fatah party, told Israel’s Channel 2 television as people gathered in a main square of Ramallah to listen to the UN speech.
Undeterred, Abbas’s application was submitted yesterday and the Security Council will hold consultations on Sept. 26 under the presidency of Lebanon, the only Arab nation in the 15-member body. Once lodged, it could come to a vote in a matter of days, weeks or months.
In the center of Ramallah, people waved flags and held up posters of Abbas. As the Palestinian leader finished his speech, mosque preachers chanted “God is Great” as drivers honked their car horns, revelers danced in the streets and fireworks went off.
Eighty-three percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support Abbas’s initiative, according to a poll released by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
Fifty percent of those surveyed expect the UN effort to succeed while 43 percent believe it will fail, according to the poll. By a 2-1 margin, Palestinians said they oppose starting an armed uprising against Israel, according to the poll of 1,200 people, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
For the Palestinians, the UN bid was also about testing American might and breaking U.S. dominance of the peace process. The European Union, though divided, has emerged as a viable interlocutor, as has France.
For Abbas, who may retire next year, it’s also a chance to carve out a legacy as father of a Palestinian state if it is accepted as a UN member nation. His bureaucratic style, described by al-Omari as “deliberate and methodical,” has suffered by comparison with the animated, provocative approach of Arafat, a born orator.
West Bank Rally
Palestinians rallied in Ramallah on the West Bank in support of Abbas’s UN address.
“It’s a historic speech,” said Mohammed Shaltaf, 25, a student at Birzeit University. “The Palestinians told the world that no one can blackmail them and they have nothing to lose. We all must be behind Abbas and his leadership because for the first time we have challenged the U.S. and President Obama and his threats.”
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Abbas’s move will revive diplomacy and force Israeli concessions, of which the most pressing is renewal of a freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Abbas said he won’t budge on that.
Having provoked the Obama administration by repeatedly rejecting calls to not force the issue of UN membership, the Palestinians have reaped mixed results.
They were never under any illusion that this week they could become the 194th member of the world body. Yet, by pushing the debate center stage, Abbas got an unprecedented number of nations in the General Assembly to publicly speak out in support of Palestine as a state.
--With assistance from Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv, Gwen Ackerman, Fadwa Hodali and Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem, Nicole Gaouette in New York, Margaret Talev in Washington, Caroline Alexander in London, Gregory Viscusi in Paris and Lara Setrakian in Dubai. Editors: Terry Atlas, Vince Golle.
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