Abbas delivers address before UN

Palestinian leader officially asked UN chief to recognize state of Palestine

Abbas pledges commitment to UN, says now is the time for Palestinian Spring

Netanyahu at UN rejected Abbas’s step, reiterates call for negotiations

Palestinians packed the streets of West Bank cities yesterday to support their leaders’ UN bid for statehood, cheering President Mahmoud Abbas as he made the biggest speech of his life.

The largest crowd seen in Ramallah since the funeral of Yasser Arafat in 2004 waved Palestinian flags and watched Abbas address the UN General Assembly in New York on giant screens. Many said the speech made them proud.

“We have come to take part with our people in asking for our rights,” said Mohamed Hamidat, 40, who had brought his wife and four children to watch events unfold. “With the current closed horizons, it’s the only thing we can do, even if the result is failure. It’s been years since we have seen anything new: this is a first step.”

His caution was typical of many Palestinians who are wary of the strong opposition to their UN statehood drive—not only from Israel but also from its main ally, the US, who say direct negotiations are the only way to peace.

President Barack Obama’s administration has said it will veto the request for membership for the state of Palestine on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Despite the prospect of failure, Palestinians who turned out yesterday welcomed the step as a change of approach 20 years after the start of peace talks that have failed to deliver their independence.

Abbas’s central role in the failed peace process has dented his credibility among many Palestinians, undermining a leader who has shown little charisma and committed political blunders.

But his speech to the General Assembly, which detailed the Palestinians’ grievances against Israel, was widely admired, even by some of his critics at home.

Invoking the Arab uprisings that are reshaping the Middle East, Abbas said “the time of the Palestinian spring is here”.

“There’s great pride. We are behind the president. Obama spoke about freedom in the Arab world but forgot that the Palestinian people are under occupation,” said Tawfiq Nimr, 63.

Loud cheers, whistles and applause erupted as Abbas handed the formal Palestinian statehood application to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and waved it before the General Assembly.

“He was strong—the first Arab leader to challenge Obama. This is a historic moment in his life,” said Badr Abdelrazeq, 35, who also brought his three children to witness the moment.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinians who had gathered for Abbas’s speech threw shoes at the giant screen when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his address.

There was no sign of organized Palestinian violence in the West Bank—a scenario raised by some Israelis who were worried that Israel’s opposition to the biggest Palestinian diplomatic initiative in years could trigger clashes with occupation security forces.

But one Palestinian man died after being shot by Israeli troops who intervened in a clash between villagers and Jewish settlers south of the West Bank city of Nablus.

Abbas noted the latest death in his speech, raising Jewish settler militancy as one of the threats to peace.

Israel had increased its security alert level ahead of the UN speech, beefing up army and police deployments.

Jewish settlers dismissed Abbas’s speech ahead of the event and said it would make no difference to their determination to remain on land they consider their birthright and refer to as Judea and Samaria.

“We don’t care what they’re up to at the UN, we have the bible, which says the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people,” said activist Meir Bartler, 25, on Thursday.

Avraham Binyamin, spokesman for Yitzhar settlement, near Nablus, said: “The real battlefield is not at the UN, it’s here on the ground and one hopes the government and security forces will understand, just as the Arabs and settlers have, that any talk of compromise is destined to fail.”

The mood among the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Islamists, contrasted starkly with the West Bank celebrations.

Ismail Haniya, leader of the Hamas movement that governs the enclave and refuses to recognize Israel, said Palestinians should not beg for a state. Liberation of Palestinian land should come first, he said.

Without a guaranteed “right of return” to land lost in the 1948 war that led to the creation of the Jewish state, “what is happening at the UN harms the dignity of our Palestinian people,” Haniya said.

After the speech, Hamas criticized Abbas for, among other things, reiterating his commitment to negotiations.

The outcome and potential side-effects of Abbas’s statehood bid are far from clear. “At the moment, it’s a state on paper. We are still occupied,” said Raymond Bosheh, 50.

“I am with the move, but the consequences scare me,” he said, noting Palestinian dependence on American aid and on access to trade, which is controlled by Israel.

“The economy could play a big role. Many people have nothing. We are living on aid. The economy is not based on anything solid,” he said.

“Everybody takes pride in the idea of having a state, but how can you live in it when you have to pass through three checkpoints to get to Bethlehem?”

Declaring ''enough, enough, enough'', Abbas has starred in a day of diplomatic drama at the United Nations, as his quest for international recognition of Palestine sparked a flurry by the big powers to fend off the final collapse of the peace process.

''At a time when the Arab people affirm their quest for democracy - the Arab Spring - the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time is for independence,'' Abbas said.

''It is a moment of truth,'' he said, ''and my people are waiting to hear the answer of the world - will it allow Israel to continue its occupation, the only occupation in the world?''

Within the hour, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the same lectern, mocking the UN as a ''theatre of the absurd'', before pushing back on the Abbas demand - ''the Palestinians want a state without peace, and the truth is that you should not let it happen''.

Deriding a reference by Abbas to Palestinians being armed only with ''hopes and dreams'', Netanyahu parried: ''Hopes and dreams - and 10,000 missiles and Grad rockets supplied by Iran.''

Each leader spoke for about 40 minutes. Abbas built his case on justice and the vexing issue of Israeli settlement on Arab land; Netanyahu invoked September 11, Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam to insist Israel's security was a greater imperative than Palestinian independence.

Both insisted they wanted peace and were ready to talk.

Netanyahu quipped at one stage: ''We're in the same building. So let's meet here today in the United Nations. What is there to stop us?''

''The status quo is completely unacceptable,'' French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe declared as diplomats from the big powers emerged from a back room at UN headquarters, claiming they had devised a new plan to break the deadlock.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis responded immediately to the new plan for more talks, which appears to incorporate much of what French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week called for as an end to US domination of what he said was a failed process.

Israel will be leery of an elevated role for Europe or the UN in the process.

But after US President Barack Obama's speech on the conflict last week, which shocked Palestinians with its Israeli partisanship, the Palestinians will be wary of the Americans who, many of them believe, have betrayed them.

The new plan calls for a resumption of talks within a month, with issues of security and borders to be dealt with within three months, ''substantial progress'' to be achieved within six months and a final agreement to be inked by the end of 2012.

None of its backers explained why the deal was any more likely to succeed where so many of its predecessors had failed, a point made by James Zogby, an American pollster specializing in the Middle East, who told The New York Times: ''What we have done now for the last 20-plus years is engage people in an endless process - as long as they were riding the bicycle, it didn't matter if it wasn't going anywhere as long as it didn't fall down.''

That too was a core element of the Abbas speech. Citing the failure of the US-managed effort to end what he called a ''colonial, military occupation'', he said: ''It's neither possible nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual, as if everything is fine. ''The occupation is racing against time to redraw the borders of our land according to what it wants and to impose a fait accompli on the ground that changes the realities and that is undermining the realistic potential for the existence of the state of Palestine.''

Abbas was met with applause, whistles, chanting and standing ovations by two thirds of the delegates - but not those of Israel, the US or Australia.

The reception for Netanyahu was more muted. ''The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state,'' Netanyahu declared.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that next week's bid by the Palestinians for UN membership had no chance of success and that they would ultimately seek renewed talks.

"Their attempt to be accepted as a member of the United Nations will fail," he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. "That attempt will fail, since it has to pass through the Security Council."

Abbas has promised Palestinians he will seek UN membership from the Security Council next Friday, despite stiff opposition from Israel and the United States, who say that only direct negotiations can resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas on Sunday left neighboring Jordan for New York, where he is to meet heads of state attending the UN General Assembly, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh told AFP.

Washington, Israel's main ally, has already announced it will use its veto to block the Palestinian bid in the Security Council.

"As a result of the actions of the United States, which is working closely with us, and of other governments with which we and the Americans are working, I predict that this attempt will fail," Netanyahu said.

"In the end, after the smoke clears and after everything that happens at the UN, the Palestinians will come to their senses, I hope, drop these moves to bypass negotiations and return to the table in order to bring peace to us and our neighbors."

Netanyahu compared the Security Council to the UN's government, while the General Assembly, he said, was more like a parliament. "There you can pass almost any resolution," he said. "They could decide that the sun rises in the west and sinks in the east but it doesn't have the same weight and the same importance as the Security Council."

Netanyahu has said he too will go to the UN to explain Israel's opposition to the Palestinian move. Like Abbas, he is to speak on September 23, a government official said.

The White House says he is also likely to meet President Barack Obama in New York.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians foundered nearly a year ago in a dispute over Israel's continued construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.