Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Yemi Adebowale, with Agency Reports
The 193-nation United Nations General Assembly late on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine.
The U.N. victory for the Palestinians was a diplomatic setback for the United States and Israel, which were joined by only a handful of countries in voting against the move to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's observer status at the United Nations to "non-member state" from "entity," like the Vatican.
There were 138 votes in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions. Three countries did not take part in the vote, held on the 65th anniversary of the adoption of U.N. resolution 181 that partitioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.
Granting Palestinians the title of "non-member observer state" falls short of full U.N. membership - something the Palestinians failed to achieve last year. But it does have important legal implications - it would allow them access to the ICC and other international bodies, should they choose to join.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the U.N. vote as meaningless and accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of delivering a "defamatory and venomous" U.N. speech "full of mendacious propaganda" against Israel. Netanyahu argued that the U.N. move violated past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and that Israel would act accordingly, without elaborating what steps it might take.
At least 17 European nations voted in favour of the Palestinian resolution, including Austria, France, Italy, Norway and Spain. Palestine had focused its lobbying efforts on Europe, which supplies much of the aid the Palestinian Authority relies on. Britain, Germany and many others chose to abstain.
The traditionally pro-Israel Czech Republic was unique in Europe, joining the United States, Israel, Canada, Panama and the tiny Pacific Island states Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia in voting against the move.
The assembly approved the upgrade despite threats by the United States and Israel to punish the Palestinians by withholding funds for the West Bank government.
U.N. envoys told Reuters that Israel might not retaliate harshly against the Palestinians over the vote as long as they do not seek to join the International Criminal Court.
If the Palestinians were to join the ICC, they could file complaints with the court accusing Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious crimes.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the vote "unfortunate and counterproductive," while the Vatican praised the move and called for an internationally guaranteed special status for Jerusalem, something bound to irritate Israel.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told reporters after the vote that if Israel continued to build illegal settlements, the Palestinians might pursue the ICC route.
"As long as the Israelis are not committing atrocities, are not building settlements, are not violating international law, then we don't see any reason to go anywhere," he said.
"If the Israelis continue with such policy - aggression, settlements, assassinations, attacks, confiscations, building walls - violating international law, then we have no other remedy but really to knock those to other places," Maliki said.
In Washington, a group of four Republican and Democratic senators announced legislation that would close the Palestinian office in Washington unless the Palestinians enter "meaningful negotiations" with Israel, and eliminate all U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it turns to the ICC.
Peace talks have been stalled for two years, mainly over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have expanded despite being deemed illegal by most of the world. There are 4.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
After the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice called for the immediate resumption of peace talks.
"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," she said.
She added that both parties should "avoid any further provocative actions in the region, in New York or elsewhere."