Abbas stakes statehood claim with defiant UN bid

Palestinians on a collision course with Israel and the US, after Blair fails to persuade them to accept alternative route

Click to follow

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted in a defiant speech last night that the Palestinians would seek full membership at the United Nations next week, a route that will almost certainly bring them into conflict with Israel and the United States, which has vowed to defeat the motion.

"We need to have full membership at the UN," said Mr Abbas in a national televised address on the eve of his departure for New York. "We need a state, a seat at the United Nations and nothing more."

The address is the culmination of months of deliberations, during which the Palestinians have come under enormous pressure from Washington to shelve the statehood bid, with Israel and the United States contending that only direct talks can achieve peace.

But the Palestinians say that 20 years of intensive negotiations have brought the dream of an independent state no closer, and that a successful bid at the UN would put them on a more equal footing for future talks with Israel.

The stage is now set for a dramatic confrontation at the UN, where the US is almost certain to wield its veto against Palestinian statehood. The move will be seen as a humiliation for President Obama, who had pledged not to use the veto in the way that his predecessors had done, and a step which will almost certainly cost him support in the Arab world.

Mr Abbas, who will address the UN General Assembly on 23 September, said that he remained committed to negotiations, but that they had reached "a dead end because of the stubborn policies of the Israeli government." Talks broke down last September when Israel refused to extend a Jewish settlement freeze on occupied territory in the West Bank.

Britain has yet to say whether it will support the bid or not, while France and Spain have hinted that they will support the Palestinians.

It had been speculated that the Palestinians would seek the less explosive and quicker option of upgraded member status from the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have a majority in the 193-member assembly, and this could be the next step if the bid fails.

Israel has slammed the Palestinian move as a unilateral step aimed at escaping obligations to negotiate and compromise in direct talks, and warned that it will not lead to peace.

Mr Abbas's televised address came after US officials and Tony Blair, the envoy of the international Middle East Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia), failed this week to persuade the Palestinian President to accept an alternative deal. The formula outlined a return to direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations. The US hoped that Mr Abbas would abandon his UN application in favour of returning to the talks.

According to officials familiar with the discussions, the formula would have envisaged a year of negotiations leading to an agreement with benchmarks along the way, such as four weeks to set an agenda, and six months to make "significant progress" on key issues of borders and security.

Palestinian negotiators were reportedly unhappy that the formula – which as expected did not meet their demands for a settlement freeze – did not also explicitly provide for UN backing for statehood recognition if the talks failed to produce an agreement, as they expected them to. Mr Abbas also said last week that the last ditch US efforts had come "too late".

Yesterday, Mr Abbas rejected allegations that he was seeking to isolate Israel, saying that the Palestinians had a "legitimate right" to end the "historical injustice by attaining liberty and independence" on a state based on the 1967 borders, the ceasefire lines following the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

"We're going to the United Nations... with an olive branch in our hand," Mr Abbas said. "We're not going to isolate Israel or take its legal status ... but we need to isolate the policies of Israel."

But in a note of caution, Mr Abbas said that the UN move would not bring independence in itself, but instead alter the basis on which Israel has conducted its negotiations with the Palestinians. "Whatever differences there would be, it would be negotiations between two states," he said. "Going to the UN is not the Palestinian strategy, it is part of the Palestinian strategy." In particular, he warned Palestinians not to revert to violence in the face of provocation.

The quartet: What each key player would like to happen

Europe is divided on the Palestinians' UN approach. If the Palestinians were to seek "non-member state" status through the General Assembly, then France and Spain are currently inclined to support it, Germany inclined to oppose, and Britain somewhere in the middle, though could back it subject to several conditions. Russia, though not an EU nation, is a member of the international Middle East quartet and backs the Palestinians' move.

The United States will veto any application for full membership through the UN Security Council and is also strongly opposed to Palestinians securing Vatican-style status through the General Assembly. Instead it wants them to resume negotiations with Israel. In talks with their leadership, US envoys have stressed the threat by Congress to cut off funding from the already cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA).

Israel has fiercely opposed the Palestinians' "unilateral" UN initiative, arguing that it should instead return to direct negotiations "without preconditions". It has warned that if they go ahead it will consider possible retaliation which could include withholding or delaying revenue payments to the Palestinian Authority or even, according to some ministers, "annexation" of the main settlement blocs inside the West Bank.

The Palestinians currently plan to seek full UN membership, as Mr Abbas confirmed last night. They argue that past efforts to advance a peace process between him and Mr Netanyahu have proved unsuccessful. As a sign of good faith, they have been demanding a settlement freeze and a promise that the talks will be based on 1967 borders. Mr Abbas says he wants negotiations but in the absence of progress he needs UN backing after what he says is the PA's success in preparing for a state over the last two years.