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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Quartet Offer Seeks To Bridge Gaping Divide

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ABBAS NETANYAHU UN
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UNITED NATIONS -- Palestinian officials submitted a bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations General Assembly Friday, on a day of frenetic diplomacy that began with clear articulations of the Israeli-Palestinian divide and ended, hours later, with a Western proposal for resuming peace negotiations, and very little by way of resolution.

Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas submitted his application for statehood to the U.N. secretary general around 11:30 a.m., an hour or so before he delivered a fiery General Assembly address that took many observers by surprise for the ferocity of its tone.

"Settlement activities embody the core of the policy of colonial military occupation of the land of the Palestinian people and all of the brutality of aggression and racial discrimination against our people that this policy entails," Abbas said, at one particularly heated moment in his speech. "This policy, which constitutes a breach of international humanitarian law and United Nations resolutions, is the primary cause for the failure of the peace process, the collapse of dozens of opportunities."

Abbas' rhetoric was matched shortly afterward by a strongly worded speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered to hold immediate peace negotiations with Abbas, but not before he lashed out at the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership and the U.N. itself and made a cryptic reference to the "the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam."

Both leaders, notably, accused the other's people of having practiced "ethnic cleansing."

Then, around 3:00 p.m., European officials in the international gang of diplomats known as the Quartet let it be known that they would be releasing a statement calling for a regimented timeline for resumed negotiations: preliminary meetings in one month, detailed proposals from both sides within three.

Both Tony Blair, the former British prime minster and the Quartet's permanent envoy, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cheerfully addressed reporters, welcoming the Quartet's recommendation as a "clear set of steps" that could lead back to the negotiating table.

"The United States is very pleased that the Quartet was able to issue a statement today with a concrete and detailed proposal to begin negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians without delay or preconditions," Clinton said in a brief statement after Blair departed.

In an interview with the BBC, however, Blair acknowledged that the passionate divide exhibited by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders earlier in the day posed a continuing obstacle, but he argued that consensus from the international community might be enough to force the two sides together.

"When you hear speeches at the U.N. General Assembly, particularly when people have got very strong emotions attached to these speeches, it's not surprising they seem very, very far apart," Blair said.

"Although there's a lot of obviously not just sound and fury, but strong rhetoric in the General Assembly, there's also a very strong believe on the part of the international community that now is the time to get back to negotiations without preconditions," he added.

Still, it was difficult for some to see how the Quartet's statement, which was the product of at least partially failed wrangling between Americans, the British and Russians, could steer the two parties away from the antagonism they'd articulated earlier in the day.

"Since President Obama's two speeches in May, the Quartet, notably in a principals meeting in July -- and then for much of this week in New York -- has been attempting to reach language on proposed parameters for a two-state solution that would then be presented to the parties and to the world," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now with the New America Foundation, in a emailed commentary on the Quartet's statement.

"That consensus could not be reached," Levy said. "The Quartet's apparent continued faith in the idea that negotiations between the parties can be fruitful and that trust can be built seems ever-more detached from reality."

Speaking in the early afternoon, a European diplomat laid out a plan for the coming days that presented the Quartet proposal as little more than a sideshow to the Palestinians' intention to apply for U.N. statehood.

"As I see, the Quartet will put out their statement, and it will be very short, and it will simply call for a renewed negotiations," the diplomat predicted, accurately as it turned out.

"And then Mr. Abbas will be heading home -- either today or tomorrow, but very soon -- and the procedures of the Security Council will take over. It will take some time to study the application, but there's no reason to think it will be held up. And from there the process can be very quick."

Asked whether the week's wrangling had ended in a sense of disappointment or accomplishment, the diplomat replied, "Neither."

Meanwhile, even as the General Assembly prepared to wind down and international diplomats set out for area airports, American diplomats -- who have spent the better part of the last month lobbying against the Palestinian move -- were just getting started.

At 5 p.m., Nawaf Salam, the Lebanese Ambassador to the U.N. who currently holds the chair of the Security Council -- and thus the fate of the Palestinian bid -- could be seen being ushered into the American mission, across the street from U.N. headquarters.

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