UNITED NATIONS — The Palestinian leader took his people's quest for independence to the heart of world diplomacy Friday, seeking U.N. recognition of Palestine and sidestepping negotiations that have foundered for nearly two decades under the weight of inflexibility, violence and failure of will.
The bid to win recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem – submitted over the objections of the U.S. – laid bare the deep sense of Palestinian exasperation after 44 years of Israeli occupation.
"The time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared.
"The time has come to end the suffering and the plight of millions of Palestine refugees in the homeland and the diaspora, to end their displacement and to realize their rights."
After Abbas submitted his formal application, international mediators called on Israel and the Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations and reach an agreement no later than next year. The Quartet – the U.S., European Union, U.N. and Russia – urged both parties to draw up an agenda for peace talks within a month and produce comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the proposal "represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties."
Similar plans have failed to produce a peace agreement, and it was unclear how the two sides could bridge their huge differences and resume talks.
The Quartet statement was radically different from what diplomats had been hoping to draft since it became clear that Abbas would not back down. U.S. and European officials had been trying to craft a statement that would outline parameters of the negotiations, including a reference to borders being based on the 1967 lines and affirm Israel's identity as a Jewish state.
Instead, the Quartet focused on proposing deadlines.
World sympathy for the Palestinian cause was evident from the thunderous applause that greeted Abbas as he mounted the dais in the General Assembly hall to deliver a speech that laid out his grievances against the Israeli occupation and why he felt compelled to take his appeal directly to the U.N.
In a scathing denunciation of Israel's settlement policy, Abbas declared negotiations with Israel "will be meaningless" as long as it continues building on lands the Palestinians claim. 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."
He ignored any Palestinian culpability for the negotiations stalemate, deadly violence against Israel, and the internal rift that has produced dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Jewish links to the Holy Land. Some members of the Israeli delegation, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, walked out of the hall as Abbas went to the podium.
Abbas declared himself willing to immediately return to the bargaining table, but with long-standing conditions: Israel must first stop building on lands the Palestinians claim and agree to negotiate borders based on lines it held before capturing the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. Israel rejects those conditions and has defied international pressure to freeze settlement construction. It has staked out bargaining positions that are extremely distant from anything the Palestinians would accept.
"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.".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the General Assembly shortly after Abbas, said his country was "willing to make painful compromises" in its quest for peace.
But while Palestinians "should live in a free state of their own," he said, they should be "ready for compromise" and "start taking Israel's security concerns seriously."
Netanyahu opposes negotiations based on the 1967 borders, saying a return to those frontiers would expose Israel's heartland to rocket fire from the West Bank. He argued that attacks on Israel from lands it occupied in south Lebanon and Gaza showed that territorial compromise would not resolve the conflict.
Talks for all intents and purposes broke down nearly three years ago after Israel went to war in Gaza, followed by the elections that propelled Netanyahu to power for a second time. A last round of talks was launched a year ago, with the ambitious aim of producing a framework accord for a peace deal. It ended three weeks later after an Israeli settlement construction slowdown expired.
The statehood bid 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 restrict access to Gaza, ruled by Hamas militants.
Even so, thousands of jubilant, flag-waving Palestinians, watching on outdoor screens across the West Bank, cheered their president as he made his historic speech. In Nablus, the crowd roared ecstatically when Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, told the General Assembly that he had submitted the request for full U.N. membership.
"We are here celebrating because Abu Mazen is making us a state. We want to have our own state, like any other country," said Reem al-Masri, a 30-year-old teacher who lost a brother and two cousins in fighting with Israel during the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago.
Abbas, who has never enjoyed the popular adulation accorded his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, has seen his popularity soar, allowing him to gain ground against his Hamas rivals.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon referred the Palestinian request to the Security Council. The U.S. and Israel have been pressuring council members to either vote against the plan or abstain. The support of nine of the council's 15 members is needed to pass, but even if the Palestinians line up that backing, the U.S. has promised to veto.
The Security Council will meet on Monday to take up the matter.
The Palestinians have said that in the absence of a positive outcome in the council, they will turn to the General Assembly, which would be expected to approve a status upgrade from permanent observer to nonmember observer state.
While more modest, this option would be valuable to the Palestinians because of the implicit recognition that negotiations would be based on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967. It would also give the Palestinians access to international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, where Israel fears it would be targeted unfairly.
The threat of renewed violence persisted in spite of Abbas' vow – perceived by Israeli security officials as genuine – to prevent it. A 35-year-old Palestinian was killed Friday in gunfire that erupted after Jewish settlers destroyed trees in a Palestinian grove and Israeli soldiers moved in.
It was not clear how serious Abbas was about his threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, born of the landmark accords Israel and the Palestinians signed in the 1990s. Dissolution would put 150,000 Palestinians out of work and cause chaos. Israel, which is skeptical of such talk, would be saddled with the welfare and policing of 2.5 million Palestinian subjects.
Associated Press writers Tarek el-Tablawy at the United Nations and Dalia Nammari and Diaa Hadid in the West Bank contributed to this report.