x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

With statehood application, Abbas tells UN "moment of truth" has come

President's speech was cheered by thousands of Palestinians who rallied in the West Bank, many waving Palestinian flags and some carrying Mr Abbas's photograph.

A Palestinian woman cries in Ramallah, West Bank, during the speech of President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly.
A Palestinian woman cries in Ramallah, West Bank, during the speech of President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly.

NEW YORK // In an impassioned speech before the UN General Assembly, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, said yesterday a "moment of truth" had arrived, shortly after submitting an application to admit Palestine as a full UN member.

"Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world. Will the world allow Israel to occupy us forever? … Are we an unwanted people? Or are we a missing state?" Mr Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and president of the Palestinian Authority, told a packed UN General Assembly.

He said the Palestinians were seeking recognition of a state on 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, or 22 per cent of historic Palestine - what Palestinians call the "great compromise".

His speech was cheered by thousands of Palestinians who rallied in the West Bank, many waving Palestinian flags and some carrying Mr Abbas's photograph.

"I've been waiting to hear something like this since I was a child," said Anwar Hamam, 41, as he watched the speech on a giant screen in Ramallah with tears running down his face. "Now the view in front of me is the beginning of a Palestinian state."

Mr Abbas handed Ban Ki-moon, the UN's secretary general, the application before he made his speech.

At the same podium a little more than 30 minutes later, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, rebutted Mr Abbas's speech, saying Israel was prepared to have a Palestinian state in the West bank but that it would only happen with the right security guarantees and could not happen with a full return to 1967 borders.

"Israel must maintain a long-term military presence in critical strategic areas in the West Bank," he said.

Mr Abbas held up a copy of the UN membership application during his 40-minute speech, which was punctuated by applause and several standing ovations, and urged Mr Ban to "expedite" the process at the Security Council. Mr Ban gave the application to the Security Council late last night.

On Palestinian refugees, Mr Abbas invoked UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the Arab Peace Initiative, which he said embodied the Arab and Muslim world's "clear position" to end the conflict.

He warned, however, that Israel's insistence on continuing building settlements in occupied territory had scuttled efforts to secure peace for 18 years since the Oslo Accords were signed and remained the "rock" against which all efforts would continue to founder.

He also rejected accusations that the application to the UN was an attempt to isolate Israel. It is rather, he said, an attempt to "delegitimise settlements and the occupation".

"Enough, enough, enough," he said to another round of applause. "It is time for Palestinians to get independence … It is time for a Palestinian Spring."

Notably less enthusiastic was the Israeli UN delegation, whose members sat stony-faced and quiet throughout Mr Abbas speech. They grew more animated three speakers later, when Mr Netanyahu spoke, albeit in front of a much more muted Assembly.

In a twist of scheduling, the speaker immediately preceding Mr Abbas on the podium was at the last minute switched from South Sudan to Armenia.

It would have been cruel irony if the Palestinian leader had addressed world leaders immediately after the head of the UN's newest state.

Two months ago, it took precisely five days for South Sudan to be admitted as the UN's 193rd member.

It will take Palestine much longer to become number 194. For all the attention the Palestinian statehood issue has enjoyed this week in New York, it will probably take longer than five days before the request is even voted on by the 15-member Security Council.

Palestinian officials say they will press Mr Ban to bring a vote as soon as possible. But there have been suggestions, angrily denied by those officials, that the Palestinians have accepted to wait for as long as two months, to give the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - time to push for a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel.

Even in that time frame, however, negotiations seem only a distant possibility. Mr Netanyahu has successfully rebuffed US pressure to freeze settlement expansion in the occupied territories, a key Palestinian demand for a resumption of talks and one reasserted yesterday by Mr Abbas, and the US has since dropped the request.

Indeed, according to sources familiar with the Wednesday meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Abbas, the US president brought nothing new to the table, suggesting he has been unable to deliver Mr Netanyahu on any key compromises.

And whether it is weeks or days, Palestinians - early enthusiasm apart - may also find that a vote in the Security Council might not force a US veto as they had initially hoped. Palestinian officials still maintain that their statehood bid has the support of the nine members of the Security Council needed to pass, thus necessitating a US veto.

On Thursday, however, after meeting Mr Netanyahu, Pedro Passos Coelho, the Portuguese prime minister, announced that Portugal, one of the 10 non-permanent members of the council - would not take a position until after the Quartet finds a formula to jumpstart talks.

The US and Israel have been pressuring council members to either vote against the plan or abstain when it comes up for a vote. At a press conference on Wednesday, Nabil Shaath, a senior PLO official, named the nine countries he said had voiced their support for Palestine's statehood bid, which included permanent members China and Russia, but conceded that this did not mean they would necessarily support the measure when it came to the crunch.

The question that will inevitably be faced down the road, whether in days or weeks, is what comes next. The answer is far from clear. Absent renewed negotiations under a framework the Palestinians can agree to, the PLO could go directly to the General Assembly and seek membership as a non-state member, as the French have suggested.

Without something, as Mr Abbas hinted darkly at in his speech yesterday, the very survival of the PA might be at stake.


* With additional reporting by Hugh Naylor in Ramallah