Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, has called for his country to be granted full membership of the United Nations — a dramatic declaration that comes against the backdrop of failed peace talks and mounting international criticism of Israel's aggressive expansion of settlements.

Mr. Abbas presented a formal letter to the United Nations U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking for the Palestinian request to be presented before the Security Council, before his address to the General Assembly on Friday, the political centre-piece of the ongoing session.

“The time has come,” Mr. Abbas said, “for my courageous and proud people, after decades of displacement and colonial occupation and ceaseless suffering, to live like other peoples of the earth, free in a sovereign and independent homeland.”

Mr. Abbas accused Israel of seeking 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.” Its settlement policies, he said, would “destroy the chances of achieving a two-State solution upon which there is an international consensus.”

He warned that Israeli policies could “transform the raging conflict in our inflamed region into a religious conflict and a threat to the future of a million and a half Christian and Muslim Palestinians.”

The Palestinian President was greeted with a standing ovation and enthusiastic whistles — a sign of the overwhelming support the membership request has in the U.N. General Assembly. India's Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said last week that India would support the Palestinian bid — though it could be several weeks, or even months, before it is considered by the Security Council.

Palestinians believe full U.N. membership will put pressure on Israel to return to peace talks aimed at creating two separate States, compelling it to negotiate on terms of parity — one State with another. The proposal has been bitterly resisted by Israel and the United States, which has threatened to veto the Palestinian bid when it is presented in the Security Council.

U.S. stand

U.S. President Barack Obama argued against the Palestinian bid in a speech delivered to the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying “peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.” “I am convinced” he said, “that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades.”

President Obama — who told the United Nations a year ago that he hoped there would be a Palestinian State by now — said he was “frustrated with the lack of progress,” but opposed membership for the country.

The United States and Israel have also said they could impose sanctions against the Palestinian Authority if its bid goes through. Palestinians have responded by saying they will consider dissolving their administration in retaliation. Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, told Israel his administration would “invite you to become the only authority from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean.”

That would make Israel take administrative responsibility for the West Bank, and raising the prospect that it would have to accord citizenship rights to millions of Arabs — diluting its character as a Jewish state.

Diplomatic sources said the Security Council was likely to delay consideration of the Palestinian request to give the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations time to persuade both sides to resume negotiations.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy had earlier proposed a compromise, which would grant Palestine the status of a “non-member State.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that the U.S. would continue to push for peace negotiations irrespective of the Palestinian bid. Her country, she said, would “remain focussed on the day after.”

For all the contention caused by the Palestinian bid, the fact is that that the U.N. has long recognised its right to a State. The U.N. had first resolved to create a Palestinian State alongside Israel in 1947, when it passed Resolution 181, partitioning the region. From 1969, a string of other resolutions followed, culminating in 1974 with Resolution 3236, recognising the Palestinian “right to national independence and sovereignty.”

Observer status

The Palestine Liberation Organisation was granted observer status at the U.N. on the basis of Resolution 3236, and the next year, the Security Council agreed that it could join in its debates. In 1998, five years after Israel and the Palestinians accepted a road map for peace leading to a two-State solution, the PLO was awarded a permanent mission to the U.N.

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