The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Friday his call for statehood was not meant to isolate Israel.
By ETHAN BRONNER and ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced Friday that he would seek membership for a state of Palestine from the United Nations Security Council next week, putting him on a
TimesCast | Palestinian Statehood Vote
Men at a coffee shop in Gaza City watched Friday as President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to apply for Palestinian membership in the United Nations.
Mr. Abbas’s plan, made public in a television address, follows months of failed American and European efforts to restart Palestinian negotiations with Israel. Some fear that Mr. Abbas’s move will raise expectations among his people, with nothing changing for them on the ground. Combined with alarmed reactions from Israeli settlers, violent showdowns could erupt.
But the Palestinians say that after decades of occupation and about 20 years of failed talks with an increasingly hawkish Israel, it is time for a new approach in which the borders of a Palestinian state are first recognized globally and then two states, Israel and Palestine, negotiate final details.
The decision to apply for membership through the Council signals a double defeat for the United States. Washington not only failed to dissuade the Palestinians from a unilateral bid for statehood, but also fell short of its goal of confining the application to the United Nations General Assembly, where Obama administration officials believe a vote in favor of statehood would be more symbolic and less divisive.
The Obama administration has vowed to use its veto at the Council to prevent full recognition of Palestine. But it is eager to avoid doing so because that action would likely leave the United States isolated on the issue, weakening its standing with Arab nations at a politically delicate moment.
“We need to have full membership at the U.N.,” Mr. Abbas said in the speech from his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which was broadcast live on Al Jazeera and other outlets. “We need a state, a seat at the United Nations.”
He added, “We are going to the Security Council,” as Palestinian dignitaries gave him rousing applause and a standing ovation. Mr. Abbas called it “our decision, which we have conveyed to everyone.”
The borders Mr. Abbas seeks are those of 1967, meaning East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza would be included. More than 500,000 Israelis have settled beyond those lines.
Israel, while officially accepting the idea of a Palestinian state, wants to leave nearly all of the settlers where they are and keep control of Jerusalem. It also fears militant groups and missiles would penetrate such a state unless Israel controls its borders, an approach rejected by the Palestinians.
One goal of the move is to gain admission to a range of international legal and diplomatic forums where complaints against Israeli occupation and settlement could be pursued. Mr. Abbas said he was not seeking to delegitimize Israel, only to advance negotiations between two equals.
For the Obama administration, the move poses an acute dilemma. It has vowed to use its veto because it argues that the only viable way toward Palestinian statehood is through direct talks with Israel. But for the past eight months, Arab countries have risen in revolt against dictators and the Palestinian question has totemic significance for the entire region.
The United States has struggled to place itself on the side of those seeking justice and freedom in the current revolts. But the Obama administration has supported uprisings in Libya and, less strongly, in Syria, while looking the other way during a crackdown by an ally, Bahrain. A veto of Palestinian membership would intensify Arab perceptions of American double standards.
Moreover, Republican lawmakers have vowed to end American aid to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks United Nations membership, something the administration opposes. That could create further chaos on the ground.
The White House sent two senior diplomats, Dennis B. Ross and David M. Hale, on repeated trips to Jerusalem and Ramallah in recent weeks to try to work out an alternative to a United Nations campaign.
In recent days, senior administration officials said, the United States was trying to get agreement on a statement, backed by the international community, affirming President Obama’s proposal last May to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state. That plan would use as a baseline the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel, with land swaps. But Palestinian officials said it was too little too late.
“We ask President Obama to face the moment of truth,” Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official, said afterward. “This is a peaceful measure. There is no reason whatsoever for the United States not to support us on this step.”
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel issued a curt statement, saying, “Peace will not be achieved by a unilateral approach to the United Nations.”
Mr. Netanyahu says that the Palestinians must not be rewarded for avoiding direct talks and tough sacrifices. Some of his ministers have called for a range of punitive responses, including annexing portions of the West Bank or removing travel privileges from Palestinian officials. He has not expressed himself publicly on those suggestions.
At the Arab League, which had strongly urged the Palestinians to take the less confrontational path of seeking limited statehood recognition via the General Assembly, an official said the group would now nonetheless stand firmly behind Mr. Abbas. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order not to upstage leaders of the league, who were traveling to New York for the United Nations annual meetings.
Officials of Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that controls Gaza, said Mr. Abbas’s declaration was a useless stunt aimed at continuing what it called fruitless negotiations with Israel, which Hamas does not recognize as a legitimate state.
“The speech is an attempt to justify the negotiations,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, reached by telephone. He argued that turning to the United Nations would get Mr. Abbas nothing.
Hamas has banned public demonstrations in Gaza to support Mr. Abbas’s move. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told reporters that Mr. Abbas had approached the United Nations unilaterally, without winning support from the group, despite what Mr. Barhoum called the Palestinian president’s rhetoric about reconciliation.
Mr. Abbas’s speech was played live on the official channel Palestine TV with the “UN 194” logo of the statehood recognition bid in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Some Palestinians listened; others said it mattered little because the United States would veto it.
Admission to the United Nations as a full member state requires a recommendation from the 15-member Security Council, with a majority of nine votes, and no veto from the five permanent members, which include the United States. Then the submission goes to the General Assembly, which must pass it by a two-thirds vote among the 193 members.
The American vow to veto has already made it clear that the membership application will not make it out of the Council. But as in other matters involving the United Nations bureaucracy, procedural and legal tools can delay the application for weeks or months along the way. And the Palestinians could still subsequently seek less formal recognition of statehood through the General Assembly.
Mr. Abbas is aware of the obstacles ahead, some diplomats said, and may not object to the uncertainty. He ended his speech, saying, “As for other options, we have not yet taken a decision on them.”
The theory is that by going to the Council, Mr. Abbas makes his strongest political and symbolic act. And for Mr. Abbas, a man who is 76 and speaks frequently about retiring, that may be part of the point. In addition, the procedural delays at the Council could provide the time for an alternative negotiation framework to mature.
But that is a distinctly minority view of how events are likely to proceed. Most analysts and officials fear the combination of Israeli and Palestinian intransigence, along with a roiling region, will create the conditions for confrontation rather than negotiation.
Reporting was contributed by Rick Gladstone from New York; Anthony Shadid from Beirut, Lebanon; Mark Landler from Washington; David D. Kirkpatrick and Heba Afify from Cairo; Stephen Farrell from Ramallah, West Bank; Fares Akram from Gaza; and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.