Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made history in his people's long quest for statehood as he formally asked the United Nations on Friday to admit Palestine as a full member state.
Snubbing fierce opposition from Israel and its regional ally the United States, Abbas handed a formal application to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon at 11:35 am (1535 GMT) buoyed by more than 120 nations which have already recognized a Palestinian state.
He won huge applause and a partial standing ovation as he later stepped up to address the U.N. General Assembly and vowed the Palestinians were ready to return to peace talks if Israeli settlement activities cease.
Waving a copy of the request, Abbas said he had submitted an "application for the admission of Palestine on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders" with Jerusalem as its capital.
Explaining why he had pressed the Palestinian bid despite the opposition, Abbas said all previous peace efforts "were repeatedly smashed against the rocks of the positions of the Israeli government."
But the Palestinian leader stressed the Palestinians did not want to "isolate or de-legitimize" Israel.
The Palestinians only wanted to end Israel's settlement policy which he said will "destroy chances" of a two-state solution to the decades-only conflict.
"This settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority and even end its existence," he said.
Reaction from Israel was swift, with a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling Agence France Presse, "We regret the step."
Ban will now pass the landmark request to the U.N. Security Council, but a vote on admitting the Palestinians as a full member state could take weeks, leaving time for more diplomatic wrangling.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the Palestinian bid would be "quickly" handled.
Despite the warm welcome by many countries, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice sat stony-faced during Abbas' speech and did not applaud.
In a Twitter message she said only direct talks could lead to peace.
"When the speeches end today, we must all recognize that the only way to create a state is through direct negotiations. No shortcuts," she said.
Palestinians were seized by the historic nature of the moment, which comes more than six decades after the creation of Israel in 1948.
Crowds in Ramallah and across the West Bank roared their approval, AFP reporters said.
"With our souls, with our blood, we will defend Palestine!" they roared as widescreen televisions relayed live footage of Abbas holding up a copy of the membership demand he had personally handed to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
But fearing a spurt of violence, some 22,000 Israeli police and border police were on high alert with forces deployed along the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, in annexed east Jerusalem, and around Arab Israeli towns.
In a sign of the tensions, a Palestinian was shot dead in clashes with Israeli troops that erupted after settlers attacked a village near Nablus on the West Bank.
Israeli officials have warned of harsh retaliatory measures if the Palestinians succeed in their bid, including a halt to funding for the Palestinian Authority. Right-wing members of the government have gone so far as to call for annexation of the West Bank.
Besides dealing a blow to Israel's position in future peace negotiations, some fear U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state could allow Palestinians to launch legal action against Israeli military action.
Last-minute bargaining to divert the Palestinians from their course resumed Friday with a meeting of negotiators from the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair said Thursday's talks ended around 1:30 am (530 GMT), and a senior U.S. official confirmed "quartet envoys are meeting this morning (Friday)."
They are trying to hammer out a possible statement which could bring the two sides back to direct talks which have stalled since September 2010.
The United States has vowed to veto the bid at the U.N. Security Council, with the Palestinians needing to win the backing of nine of the 15 council members.
If that bid fails, they may well seek to be admitted as a non-member observer state by the General Assembly.
A French suggestion that Palestine be given an intermediate status as a United Nations observer nation remained on the table, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's spokesman said Friday despite what he said were "Israeli reservations".
Abbas was to leave New York after giving his U.N. speech to return to the Palestinian territories for consultations on the next step forward.
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