The flag of Palestine was raised at the United Nations for the first time on Wednesday, shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in an address to the General Assembly that, due to Israeli intransigence, his government was no longer bound to the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements that established a basis for a two-state solution.
"We declare that as long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers, and as long as Israel refuses to cease settlement activities… they leave us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them," Abbas told world leaders.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battled for reelection earlier this year, he disavowed a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state that he made in 2009. Such a state would not be created on his watch, he said.
"I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel," Netanyahu remarked in an interview with the right-leaning news site NRG. "The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand."
Netanyahu attempted to soften this position after he claimed victory, but with talks concerning a two-state solution dormant at best, the 80-year-old Abbas has faced growing dissent at home and has struggled to determine his next move. The immediate repercussions of the Palestinian leader's speech, which his aides had earlier billed as containing a "bombshell," are uncertain.
Palestine is a non-member observer state at the UN, after being approved by the General Assembly in 2012. This month, the same body sanctioned a resolution allowing such observers to fly their flag at the UN. Though the text let the colors of the Vatican — the other non-voting observer — to be raised in time for the pope's visit last Friday, its intentions were clearly aimed at symbolically elevating the Palestinians at the UN.
The Oslo Accords, which were signed by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993 and 1995, initiated a peace process based on the "right of the Palestinian people to self-determination" and established the Palestinian Authority. They called for a comprehensive peace agreement by 1999 that would address Israeli settlements, national borders, and the status of Jerusalem. An agreement was never reached, however, and Abbas's decision to withdraw from the accords comes after several years of compounded frustration for his delegation at the UN.
Last year, the Palestinian president called on the Security Council to pass a resolution setting a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory along the 1967 borders. A text was hastily introduced by Jordan shortly before the new year, but failed to pass. Since then, the question of Palestine's future has been subsumed by the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State terror insurgency, fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli officials did not immediately issue a response to Abbas' speech. On September 10, when member states voted on the flag resolution, the country's ambassador, Ron Proser, said its goal was a mere "photo op."
Indeed, what seemed like the entire press corps at the UN for this year's general debate appeared to descend on the Rose Garden, which lies along the East River.
In the hour before the flag was raised shortly after 1 PM, what began as a scrum of journalists grew to a huge crowd of diplomats, Palestinian officials, and UN staff members. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended, along with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and countless UN ambassadors.
Before the flag raising, Abbas delivered short remarks in Arabic that were translated by Palestine's UN ambassador, Riyad Mansour.
"The day is not far when we will raise the flag of Palestine in East Jerusalem," said Abbas, calling it "our moment of hope."
The air was completely still as UN guards hoisted the flag. As it ascended, ululations rang out from some of those gathered.
Ban, speaking shortly before Abbas, tried to encapsulate the tangle of emotions, reality and spectacle.
"This is a day of pride for Palestinians around the world," he said. "It is a reminder that symbols are important — and that a symbol can lead to action in the right direction."
But, he added, "We can be under no illusion that this ceremony represents the end goal."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford