Palestinians take their case to United Nations, as new peace talks timetable proposed

Laura Rozen

True to his word, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave an impassioned speech to the United Nations Friday, explaining his decision to defy Jerusalem and Washington by submitting a bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood to the world body.

"The time has come to end the suffering and the plight of millions of Palestine refugees in the homeland and the Diaspora, to end their displacement and to realize their rights, some of them forced to take refuge more than once in different places of the world," Abbas told world leaders, to applause and two standing ovations.

Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the same body. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, sounded a strong note of caution, explaining that Israel is wary of hasty peace agreements. After Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, Netanyahu noted, it continued to face attacks.

"I bring up these problems because they're not theoretical problems," Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly. "They're life-and-death matters. All these potential cracks in Israel's security have to be sealed in a peace agreement before a Palestinian state is declared, not afterwards."

Following the Israeli-Palestinian UN showdown on Friday, American and European diplomats emerged from intense meetings to tell journalists they had arrived at an international plan of action calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks in one month's time.

The statement from the so-called Middle East Quartet--comprised of the United States, Russia, the UN and the European Union--offered an ambitious one-year timetable  to finalize an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But beyond the deadline, the Quartet statement was notably thin on specifics.

Still, if international diplomats were trying to prevent an all-out collapse of the peace process, they may have succeeded. The Obama administration meantime moved to shore up bruised U.S. credibility, describing the Quartet statement--vague though it is--as evidence of broader global support for the U.S. position backing direct talks as the only viable path to Palestinian statehood. (Although it's worth noting the statement came only after Abbas had already made his public case and formal application to the UN).

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

However, veteran Middle East peace negotiators feigned no optimism that the Quartet statement represented any new foundation for advancing a peace process that's seen minimal progress over the past decade.

"Zero likelihood of implementation," was how one former Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, sized up its prospects.

The frantic diplomatic maneuvers are mainly "designed to kick the can down road," former American diplomat Aaron Miller told The Envoy by email Friday. Today's public declaration from the Quartet, Miller noted, is designed to "make it look like we have a really credible process under way . . . . But it can't produce a real negotiation because none of the . . . . problems that impedes those talks now can be solved."

For the moment anyhow, after an exhausting week of frustrating diplomacy at the UN for the American delegation, the sky hadn't fallen. And in the current state of play in the Middle East, that perhaps is the most that could be hoped for.