UNITED NATIONS // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, told the UN General Assembly yesterday that Palestine would seek non-member state status in the United Nations, while warning that continuing "racist" Israeli policies were threatening a new Nakba.
The Nakba, or the Catastrophe, is what Palestinians call the uprooting of their people from their land during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Speaking just a few moments later, from the same podium, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the conflict could not be resolved by "libellous UN speeches" or "unilateral declarations of statehood".
"We have to sit together, negotiate together and reach a mutual compromise in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish state, " he said.
But the bulk of Mr Netanyahu's speech was about drawing a "red line" to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Mr Abbas said that although 77 per cent of Palestinians were under 35 and did not experience the Nakba, they are "are suffering its ongoing effects until today … as a result of occupation and settlers on a land that is diminishing".
"They see their homeland and, their present and future vulnerable to continued usurpation and they say firmly: we will not allow a new Nakba to happen," he said.
Mr Abbas said Israeli policy proved it did not want a two-state solution.
"Developments over the past year have confirmed what we have persistently … warned of: the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country," he said.
He said attacks by "terrorist militias of Israeli settlers" have reached 535 so far this year.
"We are facing relentless waves of attacks against our people, our mosques, churches and monasteries, and our homes and schools; they are unleashing their venom against our trees, fields, crops and properties, and our people have become fixed targets for acts of killing and abuse with the complete collusion of the occupying forces and the Israeli government."
He blamed "racist" laws for allowing quick release for settlers who are occasionally arrested and official and military commissions of inquiry, which "fabricate justifications for soldiers who have committed what are clearly considered to be war crimes".
"There can only be one understanding of the Israeli government's actions in our homeland," he said. "That one understanding leads to one conclusion: that the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution."
Though Mr Abbas said peace was quickly becoming impossible, and the existence of the Palestinian Authority threatened, he held out slim hope, calling for a UN Security Council resolution outlining terms of settlement for a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders.
Mr Abbas said his declaration last year that Palestine would seek UN. membership had provoked "a hostile uproar" and was aborted by the threat of a US veto, which he did not explicitly mention.
Instead Palestine would seek to become a non-member state, which needs only a simple majority of 193 General Assembly votes, which diplomats said Palestine clearly has as 130 nations already recognise its statehood.
Diplomats said Mr Abbas would likely delay a vote in the Assembly until after the US presidential election on November 6 to avoid a sticky issue for President Barack Obama.
Non-state membership would allow Palestine to join several UN treaties and organisations, such as the International Criminal Court, the Law of the Sea and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The latter two would give Palestine legal control over its national waters and air space.
Those are conditions Israel could likely never accept.
The Hamas government in Gaza denounced the "emotional" address by Mr Abbas to the UN, saying it showed the 1993 Oslo peace accords had failed. "It is clear that the speech announced the failure of the political programme since Oslo," Taher Al Nunu, a spokesman for the Hamas government said, calling Mr Abbas's address "emotional." "The speech contained contradictions. He talked about the failure of the peace process and Oslo, and then called for the return to negotiations," Nunu said.
But for Mr. Netanyahu the Palestinian conflict merited just a few lines of his 30-minute speech.
He attacked the "medievalism" of Islamic extremism, extolling Israelis' modernity. But the Israeli prime minister spent nearly all his time seeking support to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Brandishing a chart with a drawing of a simple bomb with a fuse showing the three stages of nuclear enrichment, Mr Netanyahu said Iran had already completed the first phase of 70 per cent enrichment, and could finish the second stage of 90 per cent enrichment by next summer.
"Where should a red line should be drawn?" he asked. "Right here," the prime minister said swiping a red marker across the chart, "before Iran completes the second stage, at 90 per cent." From that point Tehran would only need "a few weeks or months to get to the final stage" of highly enriched uranium and "each day that point is getting closer".
While praising his intelligence services, the Israeli premier said they were not foolproof and could not be relied on to find "a workshop the size of a classroom … in a country the size of half of Europe" where nuclear trigger production could be attacked.
Instead the giant plants where hundreds of centrifuges were spinning are "visible and still vulnerable", he declared.
Mr Netanyahu decried those who believe a nuclear-armed Iran could be contained as the Soviet Union had been because "Islamic extremists think very differently" than secular Marxists, who back down when "their survival is at stake," he said.
Saying it was Iranian policy to wait for the Mahdi to come and save the world, Mr Netanyahu warned that Tehran could not be trusted not to use a nuclear device.
The Israeli leader said diplomacy and sanctions had failed and implied strongly that only military action would stop Iran's nuclear determination.
"I believe that faced with a red line, Iran will back down," he said, and the "clash of medievalism and modernity" could be won, he said.
But yesterday an Israeli government report leaked to local media yesterday concludes that the international sanctions are hitting Iran hard. The report, according to details published in the Haaretz newspaper, found that Iran's oil exports declined by more than 50 per cent in the past year - from 2.4 million barrels a day to 1 million - and oil revenues dropped by $40 billion (Dh146.9bn) since the beginning of the year.
At home, Mr Netanyahu is faced with opposition for a military strike against Iran's centrifuges by his president, top generals and the current and former heads of the Mossad, however, who contend, as the US administration does that diplomacy must be given a chance.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse