Palestinians buck Obama, press UN for admission
UNITED NATIONS - President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, formally requested full United Nations membership yesterday for his as yet undefined country. But before the thunderous applause greeting his announcement in the General Assembly had faded, international powers laid out a new plan to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that was designed to delay a contentious vote on the Palestinian request as long as possible.
In a day full of diplomatic theater, Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel each laid out the tangled history of their bloody conflict in passionate, lengthy speeches less than an hour apart, while the United States, Russia, and European powers haggled in a back room for a formula to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and prevent the Palestinian bid for membership from becoming a cause for violence.
Continents away, thousands of Palestinians celebrated across the West Bank, with cheers erupting from the rapt crowds watching live when Abbas held aloft four pages of the United Nations application letter - a symbolic step toward international recognition of statehood that many Palestinians also saw as a form of peaceful defiance against Israel.
The submission of the bid for membership to the Security Council was the culmination of a monthslong tangle involving Abbas, Israel, and the United States. But the flurry of diplomatic activity yesterday underscored the reality that the request is just the beginning of an even more complicated diplomatic process at the United Nations.
Whether the possibility of a Security Council vote will prompt a new round of peace talks after a long stalemate, whether the Palestinians have enough support to force a Council vote on their bid for membership, and whether the United States ultimately will be forced to use its threatened veto of that bid were all open questions, likely to be addressed during the next several weeks of jockeying and horse-trading.
But for the Palestinians, it was a day of reckoning clearly relished by Abbas, a low-profile leader who has sought to avoid confrontation with Israel and the United States.
“It is a moment of truth, and my people are waiting to hear the answer of the world,’’ Abbas said in his speech. “Will it allow Israel to continue its occupation, the only occupation in the world?’’
Netanyahu dismissed the Palestinian application as premature. “The Palestinians want a state without peace, and the truth is you should not let that happen,’’ he said, challenging a comment by Abbas that the Palestinians were armed “only with their hopes and dreams.’’
“Hopes, dreams - and 10,000 missiles and Grad rockets supplied by Iran,’’ Netanyahu said. He repeatedly stressed Israel’s small size, saying it could not return to its 1967 borders because it needed strategic depth to defend itself, particularly from the threat of militant Islam.
Much is riding on how international powers handle the Palestinian request, with expectations soaring in the West Bank and the Arab world that the step Abbas has taken will result in genuine change.
“The status quo is completely unacceptable,’’ the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said in an interview. “If there is a veto or a ‘no’ vote in the Security Council, what will happen on the ground? What will happen in the Arab street, in the Palestinian street?
“There is a very high risk of violence and demonstrations,’’ he said. “I think that Israel will be completely isolated in the region. The situation has changed to the extreme around Israel - in Egypt, in Syria, with Turkey and so on. It’s unreasonable to say, ‘We don’t move; we wait.’ ’’
Senior officials involved in hammering out the statement on negotiations said they hoped it would inspire the two sides to return to the bargaining table within a month, but they left open the question of how they would be prodded into their seats.
Both leaders said in their General Assembly speeches that they wanted peace talks, but there was no immediate reaction from either after the statement came out from the Quartet - the grouping of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations formed in 2002 to gain more international involvement into the peace process.
The Quartet’s statement was heavily diluted, avoiding any of the difficult issues that have divided the Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and diplomats from all sides had spent weeks trying to hammer out compromises but failed to achieve a consensus within the quartet itself, let alone between the Palestinians or Israelis.
The statement did reaffirm “strong support for the vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace’’ outlined by President Obama in May. That included two states with the borders that existed in 1967 with land swaps to account for Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It called on the Israelis and Palestinians to meet and agree on an agenda and schedule for resuming direct negotiations within a month and to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months. The two sides should make substantial progress within six months and complete a final agreement before the end of 2012.
“We urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to get back to talks,’’ Clinton said at the United Nations. The administration is caught between not wanting to inflame Arab public opinion by exercising yet another veto in support of Israel and the domestic political perils of pressuring Israel, which can alienate Jewish voters and campaign donors.
The proposal does not preclude Security Council action on the Palestinian bid. But administration officials hope it will keep a majority of the Council’s 15 members from forcing an immediate vote by shifting the focus to the talks rather than the membership bid.
It remains unclear what happens if negotiations do not resume within a month. Analysts dismissed the Quartet’s statement as lacking the teeth needed to push the two sides back to bargaining.
James Zogby, an American pollster, noted that virtually every attempt to forge a treaty since 1993 had included a deadline that expired without progress.