Arabs say Palestinian statehood bid long overdue

CAIRO Fri Sep 23, 2011 3:50pm EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - The Palestinian president's call for statehood at the United Nations was a step many Arabs feel was long overdue but they expect the dramatic gesture to change little because of a looming U.S. veto.

"This is the first time for us to see this kind of bravery which we are not used to seeing from Mahmoud Abbas," said Hani Mohsen, an activist in Egypt, where winds of change swept U.S.-ally Hosni Mubarak from power and helped galvanize other Arabs to demand a shake-up of the region's political order.

But in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Arabs said the old political rules still applied.

Even before Abbas said no one with "a shred of conscience" could reject the demand for a state, President Barack Obama told the Palestinian president that Washington would block any Palestinian bid for recognition at the U.N. Security Council.

"(Obama) has an election coming up and being close to Israel and the Jewish lobby is very important for any victory. We all know that. Yes, he turned his back on the Palestinian cause because he wants to be re-elected," said 24-year-old Mohsen.

In Libya, another Arab state where a long-time ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, was ousted, the sentiments were similar.

"Thank God! It should have happened a long time ago. They've suffered enough, in their own land, from Israel, and elsewhere as refugees ... Hopefully this will force the world to give them their rights," said Abdelmalik, an engineering graduate selling T-shirts in Tripoli.

But Fathi Hassan, a minibus driver rounding up passengers in the Libyan capital, said on Friday: "God willing it will help. But I'm not really optimistic. Their real problem is America."

Many Arabs, angry at the Iraq war launched by President George W. Bush, had hoped Obama would make a difference. They were encouraged when, within six months of taking office, Obama vowed to support a Palestinian state in a speech in Cairo.

INTERNATIONAL OPINION

For many Arabs, those early expectations were dashed as peace initiatives faded. The U.S. response to the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations has deepened the frustration.

"Obama was very popular in 2009 here and the entire region .. but apparently Obama has not shown the strength or the political ability to get things done," said Abdel Raouf el-Reedy, former Egyptian ambassador to Washington and member of the delegation that negotiated Egypt's peace with Israel.

But he welcomed Abbas's appeal. "He gave a good speech and also he made a good move ... given the fact that the peace negotiations are stuck. There is a need for some kind of a dramatic step," the former envoy said.

Abbas' speech might not deliver a state swiftly but it could win more support worldwide, said Rayman Aryani, a Yemeni political science student at Harvard University.

"This may not do much at the negotiating table with the United States but it will do wonders with international public opinion. It will further alienate Israel," he said.

Abbas urged the Jewish state in his speech to "come to peace." But some Arabs said talks would not work and should not even start.

"We will not have dialogue with Israel. They are the ultimate enemy ... We believe in the (U.N. request) option," said Mohammed Gaafar, a 21-year-old electronics salesman in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

Others said blocking a Palestinian bid for statehood would only generate deeper regional anger against the United States and more isolation for Israel.

"The biggest losers of this will be the Americans and the Israelis, particularly if the Americans use the veto. I expect that if they do, there will be a wave of angry demonstrations and possible attacks on U.S. facilities and interests in the region," Emad Gad, who heads the Israel studies program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Some Arabs said Abbas made his bid for statehood because of pressure from his own people and a region restless for change.

"For about three years, Palestinians have been talking about this issue, of going to the United Nations. But I believe that the Arab Spring has given a powerful push to the Palestinians to do so," said Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraqi Center For Strategic Studies.

The Middle East's political map has been redrawn. Three Arab rulers, who were in power for decades, have been toppled. Others are struggling to quell protests against their rule.

But many Arabs said this was not enough to help the Palestinians, who they said still faced a long wait.

"People in the Gulf are still hoping that one day Palestine becomes a state. It's all about hoping. Maybe in many, many years we will see a Palestinian state," said Yasir al-Ali, who works for an oil company in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

(Additional reporting Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Martina Fuchs in the United Arab Emirates; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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