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Abbas Looks To Students In Palestinian Statehood Campaign


World Leaders converged on the annual United Nations General Assembly this week. And before they take their turn at the U.N. podium, some are warming up at other venues around New York. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, went to a college that was the site of a famous speech. To remind people, especially young people, that Palestinians remain frustrated in their quest for statehood. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that Abbas wants to set a timetable for negotiations with Israel.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the start of a week of formal U.N. speeches, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tried a different approach, hoping to gin up interest among university students in New York, asking them, in his words, to rethink Palestine and help his cause. He spoke of segregated roads in the West Bank and an ever increasing population of Israeli settlers.


MAHMOUD ABBAS: Palestinians today have far fewer rights than African-Americans in American had in the 1950s - none acceptable.

KELEMEN: That was last night in the great Hall at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass once gave famous speeches. It's a place with a storied history, as Cooper Union's president, Jamshed Bharucha, explained to the crowd.


JAMSHED BHARUCHA: Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union, built this hall as a forum for the most divisive issues - a kind of crucible of democracy.

KELEMEN: Inside the hall the Palestinian Authority President won loud applause as he laid out his plans.


ABBAS: This week I will propose to the United Nations, a new timetable for peace talks. The key is to agree on a map, to delineate the borders of each country.

KELEMEN: And though he said he welcomed Secretary of State John Kerry's endless trips back and forth through the region in search for peace, he says the U.S. should be a real friend to Israel. Real friends, Abbas said to laughter, don't let friends drive drunk.


ABBAS: A real friend of Israel would not let them engage in the widespread killing of women and children such as we saw in Gaza.

KELEMEN: Columbia University student Arriella Hall, is an activist with J-Street, which promotes Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. She liked Abbas's message, though Israel says its operation in Gaza was against Hamas militants.


ARRIELLA HALL: If we want to see peace we also have to choose policy that is pro-peace and that doesn't necessarily mean unconditional support.

KELEMEN: Other's thought there were big gaps in Abbas's rhetoric.


DAVID SHALOM: My name is David Shalom, I'm from Yeshiva University. I would have liked to hear him speak in condemnation of Hamas rocket fire and of various terrorist attacks that they commit on a daily basis. I think he only accused Israel and, you know, not Hamas. He did - he kept insinuating that the war was completely Israel's fault.

KELEMEN: The war in Gaza weaken Abbas at home politically, years of fruitless negotiations have weakened him too. And his aides know that his call for a timetable for peace talks won't get far. Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, says he's talked about this already with Secretary Kerry.

SAEB EREKAT: He doesn't like the idea of us going to the Security Council but the question to him, why? Why? We're going there to say we recognize Israel to live in peace and security next to the state of Palestine on the 1967 lines.

KELEMEN: With a likely U.S. veto though, Erekat wouldn't say what's Plan B. He only said that Palestinians need to revive their hopes for statehood in a Middle East where extremism is on the rise. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.