Peace Hopes Grim as Abbas, Netanyahu Clash at U.N.

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Richard Drew / AP (2)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at tghe United Nations, September 23, 2011.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was never going to come away from New York as the head of a new member state of the United Nations — aggressive U.S. lobbying ensured that the Palestinian membership bid would not even muster the nine yes votes at the Security Council that would have prompted Washington's promised veto. But even as the membership bid is effectively put on hold by the Security Council's technical process, his decision to approach to the U.N. has broken the mold of the failed peace process as we've known it, drawing a growing international consensus that the file can no longer be left exclusively in Washington's hands and centering his appeal to the U.N. the basis of the grievances of occupation.

Abbas handed his request for U.N. membership to Secretary General Ban ki-Moon on Friday, knowing a response would be deferred. The proposal will be studied by a technical committee, which could take quite some time, although that may have saved Abbas from a humiliating defeat if the issue had gone to a vote: Failure to record nine ayes in the 15-seat Security Council would have killed it right there — and the U.S. and Israel were confident of mustering two no-votes and six or seven abstentions.

The Palestinian leader then delivered a blistering denunciation of Israel's ongoing occupation in a speech designed to reconnect with his own base, raise international pressure on Israel, and burnish a legacy besmirched by years of failure in his preferred strategy of waiting for U.S. diplomacy to deliver a Palestinian state. He insisted that the Palestinians are ready to negotiate a peace agreement based on internationally agreed parameters — the 1967 borders, a capital in East Jerusalem, an agreed solution to the rights of refugees — but that Israel refuses to accept those parameters, and continues to expand settlements built, in violation of international law, on territory designated for a future Palestinian state.

"The occupation is racing against time to redraw the borders on our land according to what it wants and to impose a fait accompli on the ground that changes the realities and that is undermining the realistic potential for the existence of the State of Palestine," he said, demanding a settlement freeze as essential for any negotiations to proceed.

Abbas blamed the stalemate on Netanyahu's refusal to embrace the international parameters, and used the word "apartheid" three time in his speech — a coded signal that the Palestinians intend to press for international sanctions of the sort that faced the South African regime in the 1980s if the status quo persists. He also vowed continued diplomatic pressure and "popular peaceful resistance" to the occupation.

The speech may well turn out to have been a valedictory address for a Palestinian leader expected to retire in the next year or two, and who is not optimistic about a deal being concluded before he does. Instead, he appeared to be opening the way for others, brandishing a copy of the Palestinian request for U.N. membership to raucous cheers from the gathered diplomats.

Abbas' week at the U.N. has been a repudiation of the Obama Administration's efforts, making clear that the Palestinians are no longer willing to sustain the illusion that a peace process is currently underway. "It is neither possible, nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual, as if everything is fine," he said. It is futile to go into negotiations without clear parameters and in the absence of credibility and a specific timetable. Negotiations will be meaningless as long as the occupation army on the ground continues to entrench its occupation, instead of rolling it back, and continues to change the demography of our country in order to create a new basis on which to alter the borders."

But Netanyahu was having none of it. In a belligerent speech that made clear he didn't set much store by any U.N. consensus, he depicted Israel as the rebuffed peacemaker, whose concessions have been met by violence and which faces growing threat from all sides.

"The truth is that so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate," Netanyahu insisted. "The truth is that Israel wants peace with a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians want a state without peace." He argued that Israel's security concerns precluded a withdrawal to 1967 lines, raising the danger of a West Bank being turned into a hostile enclave like Gaza, but from which Israel's major cities are threatened. Abbas, he said, had refused to accept Israel's security needs, which questioned his readiness to make peace. He said the Palestinians refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which implied that they still sought to reverse that which was created in 1948.

"The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state," said Netanyahu, summing up his basic point. And, of course, Abbas' was just the opposite: That ending the occupation was the only basis for peace. The combination of the two speeches made clear how grim the prospects for any breakthrough are, despite the hopes of restarting talks

Abbas' lack of confidence in a U.S.-led effort — based on a belated recognition of the depth of unconditional support for Israel in the U.S. political system that trumps even the preferences of the White House — is shared by many (probably most) in the international community, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy making the same point in his own speech. And President Barack Obama's own address will have done little to change that perception

But just how the diplomatic burden might be shared by others in the months ahead remains unscripted. Both Abbas and Netanyahu made speeches their domestic constituents could get behind, and as such, bought themselves more time and political space: The Palestinian leader spoke of the suffering of his people, and then deferred the question of what to do next to a U.N. process that's unlikely to produce an answer any time soon. But Abbas' message to his people is that the application has been filed, and they should wait for a response.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, insisted on the paramountcy of Israel's security needs, and warned that any solution that didn't begin by addressing those was a non-starter. He'll return home on a high, telling his doubters who'd warned of isolation and a diplomatic tsunami that he'd stood firm and seen off the threat, telling Israel's truth in a hostile environment.

Both sides will bask in their claimed success, and wait for a new international game to take shape. It could be a long wait.