Abbas tells the world: it is time for Palestinian people to gain their freedom

Defiant challenge to Washington as US diplomats battle to block recognition

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, staked his people's claim to full statehood at the United Nations yesterday, in a historic move designed to mobilise international pressure on Israel and outflank the United States, whose sponsorship of the peace process has been unable to deliver the longed-for two-state solution in the Middle East.

The standing ovation that greeted Mr Abbas's declaration to the General Assembly was a raucous riposte to the US, whose diplomats had worked for weeks to try to head off a Palestinian application for full recognition. But while the application was greeted warmly in the halls of the UN and with pride among Mr Abbas's supporters on the streets of the Palestinian territories, it is only the first step in a process, the outcome of which is still far from clear. The US has vowed a potentially explosive veto at the Security Council and there was last night still no clear timetable for when the council will consider the plan. The US, the UK and other countries hope to delay consideration for long enough to allow the resumption of peace talks.

Mr Abbas came to the UN, he said, to declare "after 63 years of suffering of an ongoing tragedy: enough, enough, enough. It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and their independence... We have one goal: to be. And we shall be." He warned that the lack of progress in peace talks, plus the continued presence of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, could scupper the Palestinian Authority, robbing the Israelis of a viable peace partner.

"Our people will continue their popular, peaceful resistance," Mr Abbas said. "This (Israeli settlement) policy will destroy the chances of... a two-state solution and... threatens to undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority and even end its existence." The warning appeared to be part of a deliberate plan to loosen the logjam on peace talks. One Palestinian negotiator, talking on local radio before the speech, threatened to hand back control of the West Bank to Israel.

Thousands of jubilant Palestinians thronged around outdoor television screens in town squares across the West Bank to watch their president submit his historic request for recognition to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. In Ramallah, a flag-waving crowd packed into the downtown area to show support.

Diplomats in New York have been watching scenes from the region with concern, worried that Mr Abbas has raised Palestinian hopes for a breakthrough and worried also about the possibility of violence. Underscoring tensions in the region, a 35-year-old Palestinian man was shot dead yesterday in a clash with Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. The incident began when about 200 settlers destroyed trees near the village of Qusra. Villagers threw stones at the settlers. Israeli troops arrived, firing tear gas, then live rounds. The settlers fired back.

Qusra is emerging as a potential flashpoint. Its mosque was attacked this month by settlers angered by the demolition of three buildings in a settlement outpost declared illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Mr Abbas referred to the shooting in his UN speech and accused the Israelis of "ethnic cleansing". But he also urged them to return to negotiations, as long as they meet preconditions such as a halt to settlements.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, also addressed the General Assembly, reiterating an offer to meet Mr Abbas: "Israel will not be the last state to welcome a Palestinian state into the UN. We will be the first."

In an attempt to delay a confrontation in the Security Council, the US, Russia, the EU and the UN asked Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace talks within four weeks, to submit proposals on territory and security within three months and to strike a full peace accord within a year.

Where the key players stand

Mahmoud Abbas

The Palestinian leader appears so far to have been one of the few winners of the statehood negotiations, drawing widespread attention to his people's battle for recognition when it was otherwise slipping down the world agenda. His refusal to give in to fierce American pressure to drop the statehood bid has also bolstered his reputation at home.

Benjamin Netanyahu

While Israel's Prime Minister may regard this week's manoeuvrings at the UN as a triumph of US-Israeli ties, he has won few friends on the world stage with his bullish, steadfast position opposing any upgrade of the Palestinians' status. Domestically, he is under fire for failing to come up with an initiative of his own, while his dwindling Middle East allies have been less than impressed with his performance this week.

David Cameron

Performing a canny feat of fence-sitting, the British delegation has so far not revealed how it will vote on statehood, but Mr Cameron appears to be yielding to pressure from the US to abstain on any proposed status upgrade for the Palestinians, diplomats say.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Following a relative success leading global action on Libya, the French President put forward his own plan on Wednesday for the Palestinians to be given the upgraded observer status enjoyed by the Vatican. Israel rejected it out of hand, and it has gained little traction elsewhere, but it could provide the basis for future negotiations.

Barack Obama

The White House tried to convince Mr Abbas not to take his bid to the UN to avoid the bind that President Obama now finds himself in. Hawks at home accuse Mr Obama of cosying up to the Palestinians, and the Muslim world is railing against what they see as Washington's continued blind support for Israel. His vow to veto any membership bid was expected, and means the US has largely been sidelined from last-minute negotiations.

The Quartet

Barring any 11th-hour breakthrough, efforts by the grouping of the UN, the EU, Russia and the US – led by Tony Blair – to draw up a statement which convinces all side to go back to the negotiating table have so far drawn a blank, raising questions about the Quartet's clout.