Washington • Over staunch U.S. objections, the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to designate Palestine as a nonmember observer state, a symbolic victory for the stateless Palestinians and a political boost for their embattled president, Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States, Israel and seven other countries opposed the resolution, while 138 nations voted in favor and 41 abstained.
Seconds after the vote, the U.N. assembly hall erupted in cheers and whistles, with Abbas’ delegates unfurling a Palestinian flag and donning traditional black-and-white checkered scarves.
“We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel,” Abbas said in his speech before the vote. “Rather, we came here to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.”
The vote came on the anniversary of the vote in 1947 when the U.N. adopted the resolution that partitioned what was then Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
In the Palestinians territories, celebration began even before the vote was completed, with rallies in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - a rare show of unity for the rival political factions, Fatah and Hamas. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Palestinians watched Abbas’ speech projected on the side of Israel’s security barrier.
“I was afraid all day that something would happen, that Israel would find a way to deter us again. I was scared to celebrate, but now I am here and my heart is overflowing,” said Miryam Foudi, 19, a student in Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the seat of the Palestinian Authority. “To other countries this is such a small thing. But to us it is a big thing. It is the first time the word ‘state’ will be next to our names for the whole world to see.”
The vote showed how out of step the United States is with the international community when it comes to policy toward the Palestinians. Analysts have criticized the U.S. for refusing to talk to the Islamist militants of Hamas while simultaneously undermining onetime ally Abbas, whose secular Fatah movement is now considered the weaker of the two factions. U.S. officials had argued that Abbas’ “unilateral” bid for semi-statehood was a distraction that would prevent the rejuvenation of the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Apart from Israel and Canada, the only nations that heeded the Obama administration’s demands for a “no” vote on Abbas’ bid were the Czech Republic, Nauru, Palau, Panama, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a top contender to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke in a loud and forceful voice as she denounced the vote and insisted that it does not “create a state where none indeed exists.”
“Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” Rice said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”
European nations either voted in favor of the resolution or abstained. Germany said it abstained because it disagreed with Israel’s refusal to stop building settlements in the West Bank that international law suggests are illegal. Great Britain said it had abstained, instead of approving the resolution, because it disagreed with Abbas’ unwillingness to return to the negotiating table without conditions.
A statement from the European Union’s U.N. representative, Catherine Ashton, expressed support for Abbas and noted that the vote came only days after Israel’s offensive against Gaza, “a bitter reminder of the urgent necessity to move forward towards the end of the conflict.”
Israeli officials said they were “shocked and dismayed” to lose the support of the E.U.
“There was a serious miscalculation made here by our top officials,” said a senior Israeli official at the Foreign Ministry, who was not authorized to discuss the vote and therefore spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have clearly lost the support of Europe in a drastic and spectacular manner.”
One concern Israel has is that Palestine’s upgraded status could lead to similar action by the International Criminal Court, where the Palestinians have tried for years to carve a role but were stopped by ICC officials who said the U.N. General Assembly must first sort out its status. The fear is that Palestine would try to bring war-crime charges against Israel.
Analysts said it’s still unclear how much practical significance the resolution will have. John Quigley, an Ohio State University professor whose book, The Statehood of Palestine, argues that a de facto state has existed for years, said Palestinians could become parties to treaties that grant it sovereignty over airspace or a better standing in maritime laws. For example, he said, the Palestinians could assert a claim to the disputed offshore gas deposits near Gaza.
“It’s a state, but it’s not yet independent in the sense of having control over its territory,” Quigley said.
Palestinians won a seat on the U.N.’s cultural body, UNESCO, last year, and that hasn’t necessarily worked in their favor.
A Time magazine report noted that some longtime allies of the Palestinians rebuffed their UNESCO initiatives out of frustration over the U.S. Congress withholding $70 million in annual dues, about 22 percent of the agency’s budget, in protest of the Palestinian admission. As a result, the magazine reported, there were “widespread cuts to UNESCO’s programs, as well as a hiring freeze.”
Members of the Senate — from both parties — threatened similar moves hours before Abbas appeared before the General Assembly. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation that reads as punishment for Abbas’ U.N. bid.
The bipartisan legislation demands the closing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Washington office unless the Palestinians enter into “meaningful negotiations,” and eliminates U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if the International Criminal Court “adjudicates any matter proposed or supported by the Palestinian Authority,” according to a joint statement from the senators.
“I fear the Palestinian Authority will now be able to use the United Nations as a political club against Israel,” Graham said in the statement. “Most important, they will file complaints in the International Criminal Court against the Israeli Defense Force or any other Israeli institution engaged in defending the Jewish state.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., issued a statement in support of the Palestinian resolution, arguing that “opposing Fatah’s nonviolent efforts to achieve statehood sends the wrong message to the Palestinian people.”