UN General Assembly votes in favor of Palestinian statehood
Published November 29, 2012
JERUSALEM – The U.N. General Assembly has voted in favor of Palestinian statehood, after the Palestinians asked it to recognize a non-member state of Palestine in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.
The resolution upgrading the Palestinians' status was approved by the 193-member world body late Thursday by a vote of 138-9 with 41 abstentions.
Tensions were running high ahead of the vote, as Israel and the United States warn the move could delay peace in the region.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the General Assembly that it "is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine," and the vote is the last chance to save the two-state solution.
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, warned the General Assembly that "the Palestinians are turning their backs on peace" and that the U.N. can't break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.
A country's vote in favor of the status change does not automatically imply that it's individual recognition of a Palestine state, something that must be done bilaterally.
The Palestinians said they needed U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel. The non-member observer state status could also open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court.
In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
Ahead of Thursday's vote, thousands of Palestinians from rival factions celebrated in the streets of the West Bank. Although the initiative will not immediately bring about independence, the Palestinians view it as a historic step in their quest for global recognition.
In a statement Thursday, Abbas appealed to all nations to vote in favor of the Palestinians "as an investment in peace."
"We remain committed to the two-state solution and our hand remains extended in peace," Abbas said in a statement read by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki after the start of the General Assembly session. Abbas is expected to address the assembly in the afternoon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Palestinians Thursday that they would not win their hoped-for state until they recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, declare an end to their conflict with the Jewish state and agree to security arrangements that protect Israel.
"The resolution in the U.N. today won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu declared. "It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.
"We need an environment conducive to that," she told reporters in Washington. "And we've urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult."
The U.S. Congress has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians improve their status at the United Nations.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defense bill Wednesday 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."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate "both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations," which broke down four years ago.
But Israeli officials appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.
Regev, meanwhile, affirmed that Israel is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
U.N. diplomats said they will be listening closely to Abbas' speech to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon before the vote to see if he makes an offer of fresh negotiations with no strings, which could lead to new talks. The Palestinians have been demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition.
As a sign of the importance Israel attaches to the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to New York and was scheduled to meet Secretary General Ban Ki-moon before the vote. Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor had been scheduled to speak in the General Assembly after Abbas, but it appears Lieberman may now make Israel's case opposing the resolution.
Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly. The world body is dominated by countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the resolution to raise its status from an observer to a non-member observer state only requires a majority vote for approval. To date, 132 countries -- over two-thirds of the U.N. member states -- have recognized the state of Palestine.
The Palestinians have been courting Western nations, especially the Europeans, seen as critical to enhancing their international standing. A number have announced they will vote "yes" including France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.
A high vote could boost Abbas' standing.
"If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain," said India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.
Following last year's move by the Palestinians to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, the United States withheld funds from the organization, which amount to 22 percent of its budget. The U.S. also withheld money from the Palestinians.
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