Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that he intends to demand the reopening of the Paris Agreement, the part of the Oslo Accords that deals with economic relations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"We want to reopen the Paris Agreement and make changes to it," Abbas told reporters. "The agreement is not fair and there are restrictions on Palestinians that prevent our economy from growing and prospering. The Paris Agreement does not give us the opportunity to develop our economy and our country."
The Paris Agreement was signed in April 1994. It established that there was no commercial border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and set up a joint customs system controlled by Israel that collects taxes for the Palestinians. The agreement imposes severe restrictions on trade between the Palestinians and the rest of the world and requires the Palestinians to depend on Israeli economic bodies.
At the time, the Palestinians objected to the agreement, preferring that economic relations with Israel be arranged as part of a free trade zone. The Palestinians only signed the agreement after Israel promised to allow Palestinians to continue working in Israel. Over the past ten years, the number of Palestinians working in Israel has dropped to a minimum.
The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to begin discussing the Palestinian application for full member status on Sunday. The session is expected to focus on technical matters, such as the formation of a subcommittee of the Security Council to discuss the request, and the schedule for that panel to submit its report and recommendations.
Meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinians continue to respond to the Middle East Quartet's proposal to renew peace negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering responding positively to it, despite reservations about the timetables set in it.
In a statement on Friday, the Quartet - the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia - said it wanted to see comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security, and substantial progress within six months. The Quartet said the Israeli and Palestinian sides should meet within one month to agree on an agenda for new peace talks, with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of 2012.
"It seems like a positive message that includes things that are important to us," an official close to Netanyahu said. "But we want to study it to make sure it does not contain mines that we have not identified yet."
Netanyahu will only give an official response to the proposal after meeting with his forum of senior ministers upon his return to Israel. However, he did say he would accept any arrangement allowing for the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions.
The Palestinians have been more reserved about the Quartet proposal. "Any initiative that does not include the freezing of settlement construction and negotiations based on the 1967 borders is unacceptable to me," Abbas told reporters. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki also said on Palestinian radio Saturday that the Quartet's proposal was not sufficient.
After the release of the Quartet proposal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at the United Nations that the U.S. "is very pleased that the Quartet was able to issue the statement. It represents current convictions of the international community of the ability of the sides to reach lasting peace," adding, "We urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity."
Abbas also said on Saturday he expected the Security Council to finish debating the Palestinian application for full UN membership within weeks, not months. Abbas said Security Council members had initially appeared unenthusiastic about the idea of discussing the application, but that his speech to the General Assembly on Friday stoked support for the membership bid.
What took place in that hall was nothing less than a duel conducted by speech from the rostrum. Half an hour before Abbas took the podium, Salva Kiir - president of the world's youngest country, South Sudan - was giving his own speech. As he went on, a slow buzz began to spread throughout the hall.
World leaders, foreign ministers and ambassadors came in and filled the empty spots in the auditorium. The seats reserved for guests and journalists were also quickly taken. When Kiir finished his speech, everyone expected Abbas to speak next, but due to a change in the schedule the president of Armenia ascended the stage. The large crowd of people impatiently anticipating the day's main event heaved a communal grunt of dissatisfaction over the unexpected warm-up show.
Dozens of people who couldn't find a seat stood along the walls of the hall, while others sat down on the stairs. When Abbas' name was announced, the crowd rose to its feet and received him with applause befitting nothing less than a rock star.
Abbas' speech was unrelenting. A few of the things he said would make even Yossi Beilin or Shimon Peres cringe. When he talked about Palestine as a land holy to several religions, he mentioned Muslims and Christians, but failed to mention the Jews. He spoke of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and said the IDF and settlers abuse farmers and sick people on their way to the hospital.
Yet this did not prevent the majority of the representatives in the hall applauding Abbas, and even giving him a standing ovation when he waved a copy of the letter he submitted earlier to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting membership to the UN. When Abbas yelled over the podium "enough, enough, enough," the representatives of the world's nations believed him.
Israel's handling of the Palestinian bid reached an especially embarrassing peak during Abbas' speech. Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who entered the hall a few minutes before the speech began, decided once again to use an international diplomatic event for a little bit of internal politics.
When the Palestinian president began speaking, Lieberman stood up and left the room, as if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself was on stage. He later explained that he left in protest over Abbas' "campaign" against Israel. Minister Yuli Edelstein left two minutes after him. Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, followed the two, leaving his deputy behind.
Netanyahu came to New York in a combative mood. A series of articles in the American press, that held him responsible for the deadlock in the peace process, disturbed him deeply. He was angry over what he coined "the New York discourse."
The Israeli press became the "little devil", in his eyes and Thomas Friedman became the "big devil." On the one hand Netanyahu mocks anyone who attributes any real credence to Friedman, yet on the other he makes sure to read and get annoyed over every article he writes.
Netanyahu even mentioned this in his speech, when he said "better a bad press than a good eulogy, and better still would be a fair press whose sense of history extends beyond breakfast, and which recognizes Israel's legitimate security concerns."
When Netanyahu got up on stage, there were already empty pockets in the hall. Many representatives, especially those from Arab countries, left after Abbas' speech. The silence in the hall was also noticeable. The applause that interrupted Abbas' speech several times was not extended to Netanyahu; the only applause he received was from his advisers and a small group of Jewish activists.
Netanyahu came to the UN to defend himself from international criticism of his government's policies, and of him. His speech was aggressive and combative, but it was aimed more at Israeli public opinion than at those sitting in the General Assembly. Netanyahu focused on the basic fears and anxieties of every Israeli - from the Warsaw Ghetto to Hamas and Hezbollah rockets to the Iranian nuclear program.
Like Muammar Gadhafi, who stood at that podium a year earlier and called for the dismantling of the UN, Netanyahu also launched an attack on the organization that contributed significantly to the creation of the state of Israel. "A theater of the absurd" and "a house of lies and of darkness" were only some of the compliments Netanyahu bestowed upon the UN institutions.
Instead of a new political message or a groundbreaking initiative that would try to restart the peace process and put an end to Israeli's diplomatic troubles, Netanyahu chose to give the audience a lesson in the Jewish people's history, from King Hezekiah to the Pogroms to the present.
Netanyahu believes there is nothing he can do to change the narrative that paints him as the one saying no to peace. Therefore, in his mind, "we must tell the truth until the world understands." Some of his sentiments are justified. Even extremely justified. But Netanyahu is not asking himself how he got to a situation where no one in the world believes a word he says in the first place.
Although the Palestinian state was not created at the UN over the weekend - and will probably not be created in the foreseeable future - this was without a doubt a historic event. The cold welcome Netanyahu received stood in stark contrast with the massive support Abbas received from the international community. If anyone still had any doubts - this what a political tsunami looks like, and this is what international isolation feels like.
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