President Mahmoud Abbas received a hero's welcome Sunday from thousands of cheering, flag-waving Palestinians, having made a bid for U.N. recognition that appears destined to fail but has allowed him to step out of the shadow of his iconic predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
The crowd, many of them holding posters of Abbas, repeatedly chanted his name as he spoke. Abbas was uncharacteristically animated, shaking his hands, waving to the audience and charming the crowd with references to "my brothers and sisters."
Abbas' call Friday for the United Nations to recognize Palestinian independence has transformed him in the eyes of many Palestinians from gray bureaucrat to champion of their rights. Though Israel and the United States oppose the move and consider it a step back for long-stalled peace talks, it could help Abbas overcome internal struggles and gain the support he will need to get a deal through one day.
In a brief address outside his headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas told the crowd that a "Palestinian Spring" had been born, similar to the mass demonstrations sweeping the Middle East in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
"We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here," he said. "A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal."
He cautioned that the Palestinians face a "long path." "There are those who would put out obstacles but with your presence they will fall and we will reach our end," he said.
The dynamic public appearance was a noticeable change for the 76-year-old Abbas, who was elected shortly after Arafat's death seven years ago. While Arafat was known for his trademark olive-green military garb and fiery speeches, Abbas favors suits and typically drones on in monotone.
In seeking U.N. recognition, Abbas "moved the feelings and emotions of the ordinary Palestinian," said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a respected Palestinian academic in Jerusalem. "He gave the people national pride after they were denied it."
Abbas is turning to the United Nations in frustration after nearly two decades of unsuccessful peace efforts that were derailed at various times by violence, indecision and intransigence. Abbas says he will return to the negotiating table only if Israel halts settlement construction and accepts the pre-1967 lines as the basis for talks.
Israel and the United States oppose the U.N. bid, saying there is no substitute for direct negotiations. But with Israel continuing to build settlements, Abbas says there is no point in talking.