UNITED NATIONS – Defying U.S. and Israeli opposition, Palestinians asked the United Nations on Friday to accept them as a member state, sidestepping nearly two decades of failed negotiations in the hope this dramatic move on the world stage would reenergize their quest for an independent homeland.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was greeted by sustained applause and appreciative whistles from the delegations in the General Assembly hall as outlined his people's hopes and dreams of becoming a full member of the United Nations. Some members of the Israeli delegation, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, left the hall as Abbas approached the podium.
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."
To another round of applause, he held up a copy of the formal membership application and said he had asked U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to expedite deliberation of his request to have the United Nations recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Shortly after, Ban announced that he had referred the application to the Security Council, where it is expected to founder under the weight of U.S. opposition and a possible veto. The Security Council is to take up the membership request on Monday, but action could take weeks, if not months.
The speech papered over any Palestinian culpability for the negotiations stalemate, deadly violence against Israel, spurned peace offers and the internal rift that has produced dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza. It also ignored Jewish links to the Holy Land.
Abbas' jubilant mood was matched by the exuberant celebration of thousands of Palestinians who thronged around outdoor screens in town squares across the West Bank on Friday to see their president submit his historic request for recognition of a state of Palestine to the United Nations.
"I am with the president," said Muayad Taha, a 36-year-old physician, who brought his two children, ages 7 and 10, to witness the moment. "After the failure of all other methods (to win independence) we reached a stage of desperation. This is a good attempt to put the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people on the map. Everyone is here to stand behind the leadership."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, said his country was "willing to make painful compromises."
"I extend my hand to the Palestinian people, with whom we seek a just and lasting peace," Netanyahu said, to extended applause.
Palestinians, he added, "should live in a free state of their own, but they should be ready for compromise" and "start taking Israel's security concerns seriously."
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.
To be sure, Abbas' appeal to the U.N. to recognize an independent Palestine 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 severely restrict access to Gaza, ruled by Palestinian Hamas militants.
The strategy also put the Palestinians in direct confrontation with the U.S., which has threatened to veto their membership bid in the Council, reasoning, like Israel, that statehood can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties to end the long and bloody conflict.
Also 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.
Yet by seeking approval at a world forum overwhelmingly sympathetic to their quest, Palestinians hope to make it harder for Israel to resist already heavy global pressure to negotiate the borders of a future Palestine based on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967.
"We extend our hands to the Israeli government and the Israeli people for peacemaking," Abbas said. "Let us build the bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation, and build cooperative relations based on parity and equity between two neighboring states -- Palestine and Israel -- instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other," he said.
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.
Palestinians say they turned to the U.N. in desperation over 18 failed years of peace talks. They say they decided to reinvigorate their flagging statehood campaign by bringing it to the broadest possible international forum -- the United Nations -- in the hope an enhanced world status would pressure Israel to act more boldly.
Netanyahu insists his commitment to peacemaking is genuine and accuses the Palestinians of going to the U.N. specifically to avoid negotiations.
In recent weeks, international mediators have been furiously trying to piece together a formula that would let the Palestinians abandon their plan to ask the Security Council for full U.N. membership, and instead make do with asking a sympathetic General Assembly to elevate their status from permanent observer to nonmember observer state.
With Council approval unlikely, they are expected to exercise that option, which, while more modest, would still be seen as valuable to the Palestinians because of the implicit recognition of the pre-1967 borders. It also would 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.
The U.S. 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.
Efforts to stymie the U.N. move have been accompanied by a regalvanized international bid to get talks moving again, but the resumption of negotiations seems an elusive goal, with both sides digging in to positions that have tripped up negotiations for years. Israel insists that negotiations go ahead without any preconditions. But Palestinians say they will not return to the bargaining table without assurances that Israel would halt settlement building and drop its opposition to basing negotiations on the borders it held before the 1967 Mideast war.
Talks for all intents and purposes broke down nearly three years ago after Israel went to war in the Gaza Strip and prepared to hold national elections that ultimately propelled Netanyahu to power for a second time. A last round was launched a year ago, with the ambitious aim of producing a framework accord for a peace deal, but broke down just three weeks later after an Israeli settlement construction slowdown expired.
From the General Assembly podium, Netanyahu repeated his offer to meet with Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. session -- an offer the Palestinian leader has rejected in the past.