President Mahmoud Abbas received a hero’s welcome Sunday from thousands of cheering, flag-waving Palestinians, having made a bid for United Nations recognition that appears destined to fail but has allowed him to finally step out of the shadow of his iconic predecessor Yasser Arafat.
The crowd, many of them holding posters of Abbas, repeatedly chanted his name as he spoke. Abbas was uncharacteristically animated, shaking his hands, waving to the audience and charming the crowd with references to “my brothers and sisters.”
Abbas call Friday for the U.N. to recognize Palestinian independence has transformed him in the eyes of many Palestinians from gray bureaucrat to champion of their rights. Though Israel and the United States oppose the move and consider it a step back for long-stalled peace talks, it could help Abbas overcome internal struggles and gain the support he will need to get a deal through one day.
In a brief address outside his headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas told the crowd that a “Palestinian Spring” had been born, similar to the mass demonstrations sweeping the region in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
“We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here,” he said. “A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal.”
He cautioned that the Palestinians face a “long path” ahead. “There are those who would put out obstacles … but with your presence they will fall and we will reach our end,” he said.
The dynamic public appearance was a noticeable change for the 76-year-old Abbas, who was elected shortly after Arafat’s death seven years ago. While Arafat was known for his trademark olive-green military garb and fiery speeches, Abbas favors suits and typically drones on in monotone.
In seeking U.N. recognition, Abbas “moved the feelings and emotions of the ordinary Palestinian,” said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a respected Palestinian academic in Jerusalem. “He gave the people national pride after they were denied it.”
Abbas’ calls for nonviolence and his successes in restoring law and order to the West Bank have won him respect in Israel and abroad. But at home, he is often seen as weak and ineffectual in his dealings with Israel and the rival Hamas movement, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from his forces in 2007.
Abdul-Hadi said that at the end of a long career, Abbas is thinking about his legacy and wants to be remembered as the man who led his people to independence. He said it was no accident that on Sunday, Abbas delivered his speech outside the memorial where Arafat is buried.
Abbas has asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize an independent Palestine in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Some 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Abbas is turning to the United Nations in frustration after nearly two decades of unsuccessful peace efforts that were derailed at various times by violence, indecision and intransigence. Abbas says he will return to the negotiating table only if Israel halts settlement construction and accepts the pre-1967 lines as the basis for talks.
Israel and the U.S. oppose the U.N. bid, saying there is no substitute for direct negotiations. But with Israel continuing to build settlements, Abbas says there is no point in talking.
It is unclear what the U.N. application will actually accomplish.
The U.S., as a member of the Security Council, has already promised to veto the request if the Palestinians can muster the nine votes needed for passage — which itself is far from certain. If that happens, the Palestinians say they will seek enhanced observer status from the General Assembly, as a “nonmember state.” Passage is virtually guaranteed, but this would be largely symbolic.
The Palestinians acknowledge that any victory at the U.N. will not change the situation on the ground. But they believe an international stamp of approval of a Palestine in the 1967 lines would bolster their negotiating position in the future. The issue is likely to face weeks, perhaps months, of diplomatic wrangling.
In the meantime, the effort is likely to continue to bolster Abbas’ standing at home.
Jamil Rabah, an independent West Bank pollster, said surveys consistently show Abbas to be the most trusted Palestinian leader, with 35 percent support, well ahead of his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.
He thinks that Abbas’ speech Friday at the U.N. will only increase that number.
“It seems his popularity is rising,” he said. “The steps he is taking indicate he is brave and strong. They used to say he was an American puppet, and he is showing he is not a puppet.”
Increased support could bolster Abbas in his dealings with Hamas. The sides agreed to reconcile in May, but those efforts have deadlocked. Hamas hasn’t reacted publicly to Abbas’ U.N. speech.
It might also enable him — if peace talks do somehow resume — to more easily rally public support to conduct peace talks that would inevitably include concessions.
Already, the U.N. gambit seems to be increasing his standing in the wider Arab world.
“I have attended all the U.N. General Assembly meetings for the past 33 years but I have never heard clapping that lasted more than or higher than that given to President Mahmoud Abbas, which means Palestine,” wrote Jihad al-Khazen, a veteran columnist in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.
The international community, meanwhile, is continuing to search for a formula to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations.
The Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., European Union, Russia and U.N. — on Friday issued a statement calling for a resumption of peace talks without preconditions and a target for a final agreement by the end of 2012.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Sunday that his government should accept the Quartet proposal. But Abbas signaled it was a nonstarter as long as it doesn’t include a settlement freeze.
“We will not accept anything but … a halt settlement construction completely,” he said.
Amid the impasse, both Israeli and Palestinian officials have expressed fears that the tensions could explode into violence. One Palestinian was killed in the West Bank on Friday after a clash between settlers and villagers.
On Sunday, residents in the same village, Qusra, found 400 olive trees uprooted or destroyed. They blamed residents of a nearby hardline settlement.
Farmer Ayman Odeh said the trees were laden with ripe olives — an important cash crop for the village. “Imagine how long we worked on those trees, to see them broken now,” Odeh said.
Extremist settlers frequently destroy Palestinian-owned olive trees to protest what they feel is unfair treatment by the Israeli government.