The Palestinians were on a roll in the U.N. General Assembly when President Mahmoud Abbas waived a copy of the PLO's application for full-fledged membership in the world body. Delegates responded with a standing ovation.
Abbas' popularity has soared in the West Bank where crowds gathered in Ramallah to hear his speech live. But the membership application is expected to go nowhere while major powers advocate a new timetable for negotiations and an agreement.
Despite the excitement, there was a poignant sadness in the proceedings. The speeches from Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrated the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians -- a fear their existence is at stake and widely disparate accounts of a painful shared history. (read Netanyahu here, Abbas here and his application text.)
Netanyahu, delivering an eloquent speech in fluent English, was cheered by supporters sitting in the visitor's gallery. Only one Palestinian delegate remained while Israeli and American delegates, including U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice were in the hall for both speeches.
The Israeli leader offered immediate talks in the United Nations without pre-conditions, which the Palestinians have rejected, saying the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank had to stop. In turn, Israel wants the Palestinian Liberation Organization to recognize it as a Jewish state.
We've both just flown thousands of miles to New York. Now we're in the same city. We're in the same building. So let's meet here today in the United Nations. Who's there to stop us? What is there to stop us? If we genuinely want peace, what is there to stop us from meeting today and beginning peace negotiations?
That did not happen.
Abbas held up a copy of the letter requesting membership that he gave to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, saying "The time has come."
He received another round of applause when he invoked the late Yasser Arafat's 1974 speech to the General Assembly: "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand".
But Israel's isolation was palpable all week long, with country after country calling for a two state solution, protests against Israel in Egypt and Jordan and a rift with Turkey over the killing by Israeli commandos of Turkish civilians in a flotilla that tried to land in Gaza. (Netanyahu was reported to have rejected a legal deal that would have papered over differences.)
The U.N. Security Council, which has to approve the application for full membership, is meeting on Monday to set up a committee. It can delay a vote for a month or more and leave time for negotiations.
While the United States has vowed to veto the application, it probably will not have to vote at all. Nine votes in favor are needed in the 15-nation Council. If fewer than nine states raise their hands, a resolution collapses. At the moment only Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon are committed to a "yes" vote.
The Palestinians have said that after a "reasonable " time period they would go to the General Assembly for an upgrade in status -- a non-voting member state which allows them to participate in a variety of international forums, such as treaty bodies. There is no veto in the Assembly so they are assured of passage.
Quartet wants immediate talks
In an effort to avoid a confrontation, the Middle East mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- proposed a return to the negotiating table without preconditions within a month. Both sides are to submit plans on the contentious issues of borders and security within three months. They are to make "substantial progress" within six months and complete a final agreement before the end of 2012.
But one thing is clear. Without outside pressure and facilitators during the negotiations, the Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart to have substantial talks after 20 years of missed deadlines. Abbas is not considered a skilled negotiator and Netanyahu has a reputation of inflexibility.
"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, urging both sides to seize the chance to talk.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Quartet's special envoy, believed both sides could accept the proposals and begin work. Asked by this reporter if they would, he said "I have no idea."
Reactions in the West Bank were captured by Reuters in two telling quotes:
"We have come to take part with our people in asking for our rights," said Mohammed Hamidat, 40. "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."
Said Israeli settler Meir Bartler, 25: "We don't care what they're up to at the U.N. We have the bible, which says the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people."
The barebones history
The United Nations partitioned Palestine in 1947, but Arab states rejected that and declared war on the new state of Israel, which then captured more territory than it had been allotted under the U.N. plan Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out and became refugees. For decades Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt took Gaza.
Then in 1967, Israel feared Arab states would attack and launched a pre-emptive war, seizing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and defeating Arab armies. It began to put down Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those in the West Bank were expanded and those in the Gaza Strip (now controlled by Hamas which does not recognize Israel and objects to Abbas' U.N. initiative) were dismantled.
According to Ari Shavit, a senior correspondent of the Israeli Haaretz newspaper and a member of its editorial board, the Obama administration, the Israelis and the Palestinians squandered months of opportunities for talks:
The Palestinians made a grave error in the past month. Success went to their heads and they overplayed their hand. Going head-to-head against (President) Obama turned Abbas into a rival and played into Netanyahu's hands. But Netanyahu could make that very same mistake now. After succeeding to break in a wayward American president, he believes everything is OK. But everything is not OK. The occupation is not OK, Israel is not OK, the Middle East is not OK. There's a real world outside the Capital Beltway.