UNITED NATIONS — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday formally requested full U.N. membership for an independent Palestinian state, bucking staunch U.S. opposition in the hope of redefining the long-running conflict with Israel.
Abbas submitted the application to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prior to addressing the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, where he delivered an impassioned call for an end to "63 years of suffering" under Israeli occupation of lands that the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Accusing the Israeli government of undermining the peace process by erecting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital, Abbas complained of "armed settler militias" whom he said wage "frequent attacks against our people, targeting their homes, schools, universities, mosques, fields." He insisted that the bid for statehood wasn't "aimed at isolating Israel or de-legitimizing it; rather we want to gain legitimacy for the cause of the people of Palestine.
"We only aim to de-legitimize the settlement activities, the occupation and apartheid and the logic of ruthless force," he said, adding, "We believe that all the countries of the world stand with us in this regard."
Still, he offered an olive branch, saying he was interested in making peace with the Israelis, "instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other."
At the end of his speech, Abbas, an avuncular man with silver hair and glasses, held up a copy of the application and received a loud ovation from a packed chamber of delegates. The Palestinian statehood bid has dominated the General Assembly meeting, and Abbas' speech was interrupted numerous times for applause — a stark contrast to President Barack Obama's relatively coolly greeted remarks on Wednesday.
Later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the U.N., saying his nation never gets a fair shake. He insisted that Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, but accused them of opposing negotiations. He also warned against the threat of militant Islamists.
"The truth is that Israel wants peace. the truth is that I want peace," Netanyahu said. "The truth is that in the Middle East peace must be anchored in security. So far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate. The Palestinians want a state without peace...and you shouldn't let that happen."
The United States has pledged to block the Palestinians' statehood bid with the veto it wields as a permanent Security Council member, and was reportedly lobbying fellow council members to delay a decision on the application. The Obama administration said that granting Palestinian statehood was premature and would jeopardize efforts to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which it has said is the only route to a durable peace.
"When the speeches end today, we must all recognize that the only way to create a state is through direct negotiations. No shortcuts," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on Twitter.
Abbas had pledged for years to take this bid to the U.N., and he drew a direct line between the pro-democracy ferment roiling the Arab world and the Palestinians' desire for independence.
"At a time when Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy in the Arab Spring, the time has come also for the Palestinian spring, the time for independence," he said, to loud applause.
He accused the Israelis of repeatedly blocking serious negotiations, saying that "efforts at peace were repeatedly smashed against a rock." He called on the Security Council to approve the application immediately.
"This is a moment of truth; our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world," he said.
"Will it allow Israel to occupy us forever, and will it allow Israel to remain a state above the law and accountability?"
As Abbas spoke, large crowds gathered in Ramallah in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, waving the Palestinian flag, and television images showed some women weeping. Near the West Bank town of Qusra, clashes between West Bank villagers and Israeli settlers turned deadly when Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man, according to witness accounts.