(USA Today) - The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday 138-9 with 41 abstentions to grant Palestine non-member state status, a symbolic move that Israel and the USA warned would make peace more difficult.
"We are here for a final serious attempt to achieve peace," Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told General Assembly delegates before the vote. "Not to end the negotiation process... rather to breathe new life into the negotiation process."
In his remarks Abbas said he "did not come here to de-legitimize a state established years ago, that is Israel." He then lashed out at Israel, blaming it for a lack of peace in the region and alleging it conducted "ethnic cleansing" in Gaza in its air campaign against rocket fire aimed it Israeli cities and towns.
Israel's occupation, he said, "is becoming consistent with an apartheid system" that promotes "racial hatred and incitement," he said. "The window of opportunity is narrowing and time is running out."
Abbas' remarks and the final vote were met with loud applause in the General Assembly. The vote effectively recognizes Palestine as a state but it will not be a UN member. Membership is granted by the Security Council. But the vote may allow the Palestinian Authority to file suits against Israel in the International Court of Justice.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Abbas speech "defamatory and venomous," saying it was "full of mendacious propaganda" against Israel.
The United States, which voted against the resolution, immediately criticized the vote. The USA and Israel have said that the vote will make the Palestinians less likely to compromise on difficult choices and make it harder for the two sides to create a lasting peace.
"Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path peace," U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the vote "unfortunate" and "counterproductive."
Palestinians in the West Bank erupted in cheers, hugging each other and honking car horns. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, hundreds crowding into the main square waved Palestinian flags and chanted "God is great."
Abbas said Palestinians will accept nothing less than an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital on all territories occupied in a 1967 war, and a settlement to the issue of millions of Palestinian descendants who have refugee status.
Vuk Jeremic, president of the General Assembly acknowledged the historical nature of the vote and called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders "to work for peace, negotiate in good faith and succeed." Until Thursday, the Palestinian Authority has the status of U.N. observer.
Abbas went forward despite appeals to postpone the request, which the United States said will only make negotiations for a permanent state less likely to happen.
"If the Israeli authorities want to threaten my life, they can," Abbas said according to Palestinian news agency Ma'an. "The whole world realizes that the Palestinian Authority, with all its political and security services, and administrative bodies, has been ready to upgrade its status for six years."
The Israeli government did not threaten Abbas' life, but said said that peace is only achieved through negotiations, and not by unilateral declarations that do not take into consideration Israel security needs.
"Israel's hand is always extended in peace, but a Palestinian state will not be established without recognition of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, without an end-of-conflict declaration, and without true security arrangements that will protect Israel and its citizens," Netanyahu said Thursday.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defense bill that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.
"Increasing the Palestinians' role in the United Nations is absolutely the wrong approach, especially in light of recent military developments in the Middle East," he said in a statement. "Israel is one of America's closest allies, and any movement to strengthen one of its fiercest enemies must not be tolerated."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told CNN a Palestinian attempt to join the International Criminal Court would produce "a strong reaction in this country that I think would be bipartisan and very specific."
Abbas said his bid to seek U.N.recognition was met with "an incessant flood of Israeli threats," including "justification of military assaults and ethnic cleansing, particularly in east Jerusalem."
Many Western countries that supported Israel in its war with Hamas in Gaza this month either voted for the measure or refused to vote against it. That was meant as a wake up call for Israel to sit down and deal with Abbas, says Avi Melamed, a former senior Israeli official on Arab affairs.
"It's clear to the world and especially after this latest round (in Gaza), this conflict has the potential of setting a large fire and it's getting more serious," Melamed said from his home near Tel Aviv. "It's clearly a message we're getting sick and tired of the whole thing. You should find a way to deal with it."
Palestinians are "trying to grab statehood without having to compromise with Israel," said David Weinberg, director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Israel.
Rather than leading to a Palestinian state or improving the prospects for negotiations with Israel, the bid will do the opposite, Weinberg said. "It will harden positions on all sides and force Israel to take actions against Abbas' authority that will set any chances of real peace emerging back for years."
Among the issues to be decided are the status of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim for a capital, the details of borders and security, mutual recognition and refugee claims.
The Palestinian effort is a rejection of US-mediated peace talks, says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of The Palestine Center, a pro-Palestinian think-tank in Washington. They're meant to create leverage for Palestinians to impose costs on the Israelis for the occupation, Munayyer says.
"This is an alternative strategy to seek membership in other international forums after Obama failed to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze" in 2010, Munayyer said.
The Palestinians have different strategies for making the occupation costly for Israel, Munayyer said. Hamas, the U.S. designated terror group that rules the Palestinian territory of Gaza, believes only force will achieve Israeli concessions, while Abbas' Fatah party and Palestinian Liberation Organization believe in using international courts and organizations.
"Unless Israel has costs related to the occupation, it's not going to change," he says.
The U.N. vote should be "a springboard" to a process that results in better relations between Ramallah and Washington, says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which advocates for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Better Palestinian-US relations would be the first step to getting back to negotiations with Israel, Ibish says.
Ibish said he believes many European countries that Israel and the USA thought would abstain or oppose the measure decided to vote in favor or abstain because Palestinian leaders signaled "they can be restrained in using those options."
Munayyer said Palestinians may have told U.N. delegates they won't seek admission to international bodies "to get more votes at this point, but they've been following this alt strategy and they'll probably continue to go down this road." to peace depends on how we comport ourselves. ... called on Israel and Pal leaders "to work for peace, neg in good faith and succeed."
The vote is historic, but only in the sense that it grants formal recognition to the right of Palestinian statehood, says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't think it moves the process any closer to negotiations," Ottaway said.
Western states, especially, signed on or abstained in such numbers because of the war Israel fought this month with the hardline Islamist Hamas organization in the Gaza Strip, she said.
They recognize "that unless Abbas gets something, and achieves something, the influence of Hamas is going to increase and the Palestinian Authority is going to dwindle to nothing," Ottaway said.
Palestinian leaders are pressing ahead, arguing that improving their status at the United Nations will give them better bargaining power against Israel, which they say has been stalling on negotiations while expanding settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Unlike Abbas' failed attempt at gaining full state recognition in 2011, Thursday's measure does not require Security Council approval or risk a U.S. veto.
By Oren Dorell, USA Today