New try at peace talks after Palestinians ask to join UN

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 23, 2011 

UNITED NATIONS — Hours after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made an impassioned appeal for full U.N. membership for an independent Palestinian state, U.S. and European diplomats on Friday proposed a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to begin within a month, with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2012.

Having failed despite furious lobbying to persuade the Palestinians to drop their application for U.N. membership, which Abbas formally submitted Friday, U.S. officials said that the proposal by the so-called Quartet of mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — offered the best chance to restart long-stalled negotiations.

"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through communications between the parties," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "Therefore we urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks."

In a statement, the Quartet said it wanted the two parties to agree on an agenda for talks within 30 days. It called for "comprehensive proposals" within three months on territory and security and "substantial progress" within six months.

The Quartet's statement appeared to be an effort to lower the temperature after weeks of intense wrangling by the United States and allies to block or delay the Palestinian bid. It didn't address the preconditions for talks that both sides have declared: the Palestinians' demand that Israel freeze construction of Jewish settlements on land that they claim as part of a Palestinian state, for example, and Israel's demand that Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state.

There appeared to be little common ground between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as each took the stage at the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. In a dramatic pair of speeches that were as different in style as in substance, both leaders reiterated their oft-stated positions and bluntly blamed each other for the lack of progress in solving the decades-old conflict.

Abbas delivered an emotional call for an end to "63 years of suffering" by Palestinians under Israeli occupation of land that they see as part of their future state. At the end of his speech, Abbas, an avuncular man with silver hair and glasses, held up a copy of the statehood application and received a loud ovation from a packed chamber of delegates.

"This is a moment of truth," Abbas said. "Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world. Will it allow Israel to occupy us forever, and will it allow Israel to remain a state above the law and accountability?"

Netanyahu, who followed Abbas on the stage just an hour later, insisted that Israel wanted peace but that the Palestinians are the obstacle to a negotiated settlement that would create two states, living side by side.

"The Palestinians want a state without peace and you shouldn't let that happen," a defiant Netanyahu told a much more subdued chamber. The Israeli leader did little to hide his contempt for the U.N., labeling it a "theater of the absurd" for awarding key roles to "real villains" such as Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, which currently chairs the Security Council.

He mocked Abbas for saying that Palestinians were "armed only with their dreams, courage, hope and slogans."

"Yes," Netanyahu said. "Hopes, dreams and 10,000 missiles and Grad rockets supplied by Iran."

The Palestinian statehood bid has dominated the General Assembly meeting, and Abbas' speech was interrupted numerous times for applause — a stark contrast to the reception given to Netanyahu and to President Barack Obama, whose remarks Wednesday in opposition to the Palestinian bid for recognition were greeted politely, if coolly.

The United States has pledged to block the statehood bid with the veto it wields as a permanent Security Council member and was reportedly lobbying fellow council members to delay a decision on the application. The Obama administration has said that granting Palestinian statehood was premature and would jeopardize efforts to restart peace talks.

U.N. officials said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted the Palestinian application to the Security Council, which decides whether to recommend admission to the 193-member General Assembly. But it was unclear when a vote would take place.

Abbas had pledged for years to take this bid to the U.N., and he drew a direct line between the pro-democracy ferment roiling the Arab world and the Palestinians' desire for independence. He said the Palestinians have been working toward democracy and strengthening the judiciary and other institutions to prepare for statehood.

"At a time when the Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy in the Arab Spring, the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence," he said, to loud applause.

As Abbas spoke, large crowds gathered in Ramallah in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, waving the Palestinian flag, and television images showed some women weeping. Near the West Bank town of Qusra, clashes between West Bank villagers and Israeli settlers turned deadly when Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man, according to witness accounts.

Even as Abbas and Netanyahu appeared as far apart as ever, each made a point of extending olive branches to the other.

Abbas insisted that the Palestinian efforts "are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimizing Israel. Rather, we want legitimization for the people of Palestine." He called for the sides to build "bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation."

But he accused the Israeli government of systematically undermining the peace process with its policy of erecting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which Abbas said Palestinians claim as their capital.

Abbas said he was forced to seek U.N. recognition because "the occupation is racing against time to redraw the borders on our land ... and to impose a fait accompli on the ground that is undermining the realistic potential for the existence of the state of Palestine."

Netanyahu dismissed Abbas' contention that the spreading Jewish settlements are at the heart of the conflict, noting the antagonism between the two has been raging for decades and predates the settlements. He described the statehood bid as a Palestinian effort to sidestep tough negotiations where they would have to make serious concessions.

"The core of the conflict," Netanyahu said, "has always been the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state."

He repeatedly stressed Israel's tiny size and its need to protect itself from the "insatiable crocodile" of militant Islam.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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