The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to grant Palestinians limited recognition of statehood, prompting exuberant celebrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and immediate condemnations from the United States and Israel.
The 193-member U.N. body voted 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions, to recognize Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” a status that falls well short of independence but provides Palestinians with limited privileges as a state, including the right to join the International Criminal Court and other international treaty bodies.
Speaking before the vote, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the U.N. actions offered the only means to salvage a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We did not come here to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel,” he said. “Rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of a state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.”
But the United States and Israel said the Palestinian bid would complicate efforts to restart stalled Middle East peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement accusing Abbas of having “violated the agreements” between the two sides, and pledging that “Israel will act accordingly.”
“The decision at the U.N. today will change nothing on the ground,” said Netanyahu, insisting that only direct talks will confer true statehood on the Palestinians. “It will not advance the establishment of a Palestinian state; it will push it off.”
Speaking in Washington minutes after the vote, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the U.N. action “unfortunate and counterproductive.”
“We have been clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace they both deserve: Two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel,” she said.
The date of the Palestinian statehood bid carries symbolic importance for both sides, coming on the anniversary of the General Assembly vote on Nov. 29, 1947, to partition British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, a step that led to the creation of Israel.
Thursday’s vote exposed deep divisions within Europe over Palestinian statehood, with France, Italy and Spain supporting the Palestinians, and Germany and Britain abstaining. But the Europeans remained united in calling for Middle East peace talks to be restarted as soon as possible.
Expressing grave concern over the impasse, Britain’s U.N. envoy, Mark Lyall-Grant, appealed to the Obama administration to take charge of the peace process. “Our central objective is to achieve a return to credible negotiations in order to secure a two-state solution,” Lyall-Grant said. “We looked at the United States, with the strong and active support of the United Kingdom, and the international community, to do all it can in the coming weeks and months to take a decisive lead in restarting negotiations.”
After the vote, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called on the Israelis and Palestinians to resume talks “without preconditions” and pledged that the United States will support the parties vigorously in such efforts. She also said the United States will firmly oppose “any and all unilateral actions” in U.N. agencies and treaty bodies that could disrupt the peace process.
The prospect of Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court, which could place Palestinian territories under the court’s jurisdiction for the first time, has alarmed Israel and the United States, who fear it may lead to the prosecution of Israeli soldiers. It has also rattled Europeans, who support the ICC but fret that Palestinian membership in the tribunal would complicate efforts to restart peace talks.
The Palestinians’ U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, told reporters this week that his government had no intention of immediately joining the ICC but that it intended to keep the option on the table. He also hinted that the Palestinians would consider going to the court if Israel continues its settlement policy.
In the West Bank capital of Ramallah, Palestinians clogged the streets, honking horns and dancing in celebration of the U.N. vote. More than a thousand had packed Yasser Arafat Square to watch the proceedings on a giant screen. Yellow flags of Abbas’s Fatah party were hoisted along with Palestinian flags.
When the vote result was flashed on the screen, a huge cheer went up from the crowd and celebratory gunfire rang out. Young men roared: “God is great!”
Standing with friends near the square, Ihsan Saadi, a 25-year-old student, welcomed the U.N. vote.
“It means recognition that this is a Palestinian state under occupation, not a people under occupation,” he said. “It will bring more pressure on Israel, because it will be negotiating with a state, not a self-governing entity.”
Ahead of the vote Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators warned the Palestinians that millions in U.S. financial aid could be forfeited if they use their upgraded U.N. status against Israel. “The biggest fear I have is that the Palestinians achieve this status it won’t be very long before the Palestinians use the United Nations as a club against Israel,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Graham and three colleagues introduced legislation threatening to cut off U.S. assistance. The Palestinian political office in Washington also could be shuttered.
“We are committed, Democrats and Republicans, to using every means at our disposal to ensure that this U.N. General Assembly vote does not serve as a precedent for elevating the status” of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)