As Palestinians submit statehood bid, new peace talks are proposed

September 23, 2011

A Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations was effectively put on hold Friday when global powers agreed on a proposal for restarting direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis, with the goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement between the two sides by the end of next year.

The agreement, which, if accepted by the Israelis and Palestinians, could see a return of direct negotiations in less than a month, came hours after Palestinians filed papers formally requesting U.N. membership, a move fiercely opposed by Israel and viewed warily by U.S. and European officials, who fear it would trigger unrest and set back chances for peace in the region.

Leaders of the so-called Middle East Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — hammered out the proposal for talks after several days of marathon negotiations that took on increasing urgency with news of violent clashes Friday in West Bank cities. The proposal did not preempt the Palestinians’ statehood bid, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced to cheers and whistles in the U.N. General Assembly’s main hall. But U.S. and U.N. officials said Abbas’s application was unlikely to come before the Security Council for a vote if peace talks were underway and making progress.

The Quartet’s broadly worded statement contained few specifics, sidestepping emotionally volatile issues such as Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. But it called on the two sides to present detailed proposals within three months, tackling the key issues of borders and security. The proposal also endorsed President Obama’s vision, outlined in a speech in May, for separate Palestinian and Israeli states with borders that roughly coincide with those that existed before the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, with mutually agreed adjustments.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Quartet’s lead envoy, hailed the proposal as a breakthrough and said the negotiations laid out by the global powers would complement the Palestinians’ bid for recognition by the United Nations. European diplomats acknowledged that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had formally approved the plan for new talks, but the diplomats said officials from both sides had been deeply involved in discussions leading up to Friday’s Quartet statement.

“People have got to reflect on this and decide that, whatever happens here at the U.N., in the end it’s what happens in Palestine and Israeli that really counts,” Blair told reporters moments after the Quartet statement was announced.

“If they’re interested in negotiations — as the Palestinians and Israelis say that are — what this does is provide a schedule, a timetable and a prescription for the parties, not just to sit around a table together, but within three months of the negotiations to present comprehensive proposals on borders and security. That is the only way in the end that we deal with the difficult issues.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed the initiative in a hastily arranged news conference. “We urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks, and the United States pledges our support as the parties themselves take the important next steps for a two-state solution, which is what all of us are hoping to achieve,” she said.

The announcement of a plan for peace talks provided a dramatic finish to a day that saw dueling, virtually back-to-back speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, who electrified the General Assembly chamber when he held aloft a copy of the freshly signed U.N. membership application.

Abbas’s request for U.N. membership was the culmination of several months of a high-stakes diplomatic drive to secure Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. It set the Palestinian leadership on a collision course with Israel and the United States, which have insisted that the only path to statehood is through direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In his speech to the body, Abbas repeatedly denounced Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank, which he said was aimed at “entrenching occupation” of Palestinian land.

He charged that every peace initiative has been “smashed against the rock of the positions of the Israeli government,” notably what he called its “settlement expansion project.” He said his Palestine Liberation Organization is “ready to return immediately to the negotiating table on the basis of the adopted terms of reference based on international legitimacy and the complete cessation of settlement activity.”

Meanwhile, he said, “our people will continue their popular and peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation.”

After holding up the copy of the application, Abbas declared: “Palestine is being reborn. This is my message. May all the people of the world stand with the people of Palestine.”

Netanyahu, taking the podium shortly after Abbas, insisted that Israelis also favor a peaceful solution to the conflict. He rejected Abbas’s characterization of Israel’s settlement policy as the main obstacle.

“The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel, and then get their state,” he said. He challenged Abbas to reopen direct negotiations right away, since both men were in New York.

“We’re in the same building,” Netanyahu said. “So let’s meet here today in the United Nations. . . . If we genuinely want peace, what is there to stop us from meeting today and beginning peace negotiations?”

He told the audience — considerably thinned out from when Abbas spoke — that “the Palestinians want a state without peace, and . . . you shouldn’t let that happen.”

The office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had transmitted the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the U.N. Security Council.

Lebanon’s U.N. ambassador, Nawaf Salam, who is serving this month as the Security Council’s rotating president, said he would distribute the Palestinian statehood request to other council members Monday. Diplomats said they did not expect the council to act on the decision anytime soon, if at all.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report from Washington.

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