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Saturday, December 1, 2012 - Page updated at 04:00 p.m.
U.N. votes overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestinian status
By Paul Richter
Tribune Washington bureau
UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly voted by a lopsided margin Thursday to grant Palestinians a new, enhanced status that acknowledges their goal of statehood. The United States and Israel voted against the measure.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won 138 of the assembly's 193 votes Thursday — including those of some key European nations — for his proposal to have the group's standing upgraded to "nonmember observer state" from "nonmember observer entity."
The historic vote came 65 years to the day after the General Assembly voted in 1947 to divide Palestine into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. Israel became a state but the Palestinians rejected the partition plan, and decades of tension and violence have followed.
Real independence, however, remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution. Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their U.N. status.
It was the use of the word "state" that was most important to Palestinians. Abbas argued that the designation would amount to international recognition of the statehood that Palestinians have not been able to win through decades of negotiation. But it may have little practical effect on their ability to achieve it.
All the same, Palestinians danced in the streets, honked horns, hugged and set off fireworks.
"Today we are a state," said Khalil Abdulsalam, 35, a government office worker in Ramallah, shouting to be heard over the celebrations. "Today we are a part of the international community and the rest of the world must see us as a state."
The new status opens the way for the Palestinians to press their interests through U.N. organizations, and some have suggested they might use the International Criminal Court to fight Israeli settlements or accuse Israel of war crimes.
The normally cautious Abbas laid out his plan with ringing declarations about the rights of Palestinians, but with little hint of how far he intends to go. The assembly was asked "to issue a birth certificate to the reality of the state of Palestine," said Abbas, who received two standing ovations.
The U.S. and Israel say the Palestinians should achieve statehood only through direct talks with Israel, and consider the proposal a disruptive end-run around negotiations.
With most U.N. members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there had been no doubt of passage. A state of Palestine has been recognized by 132 countries, and the Palestinians have 80 embassies and 40 representative offices around the world, according to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Still, the Palestinians lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries. France, Spain, Italy and the Scandinavian countries were with the majority in the 138-9 vote. The United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands were among the 41 countries that abstained. Not all members voted.
Joining the United States and Israel in voting "no" were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United Nations had made an "unfortunate and counterproductive decision" that placed "new obstacles in the path of peace."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Abbas' speech as "defamatory and venomous."
"Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner," said a statement from Netanyahu's office. "The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, without preconditions, and not in one-sided U.N. decisions. By going to the U.N., the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly."
While the United States and Israel have fought the proposal for two years, they also don't want the collapse of Abbas' government because they would then be left to deal with the militant group Hamas, which they formally designate as a terrorist organization.
European governments, while skeptical in some cases of the benefits of the move, believe that Abbas' moderate Palestinian faction needs visible world support for pursuing a nonviolent approach at a time its rival Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has won new diplomatic status and domestic support for attacking Israel with thousands of rockets.
In its eight-day conflict with Israel this month, Hamas was courted by Islamic and other world leaders, while Abbas was largely ignored.
Despite Thursday's triumph, the Palestinians face enormous limitations. They don't control their borders, airspace or trade, they have separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank, and they have no unified army or police.
The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
With Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.
The U.N. action also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts.
In a departure from its previous opposition, Hamas said it wouldn't interfere with the U.N. bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.
Israeli officials warned they would react strongly if Abbas moved, for example, to use the International Criminal Court against them. They also said this week they might temporarily withhold tax-revenue transfers to recoup about $180 million in unpaid electricity bills, but that more punitive steps would be postponed.
U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, met with Abbas on Wednesday in New York to urge him again not to use the new status to begin a fight with Israel that could backfire.
Reaction in Congress may be less measured.
U.S. lawmakers have held up more than $200 million in aid to the authority because of questions about the U.N. proposal and Fatah's possible reconciliation with Hamas.
Even as they danced in the streets during the day's festivities, Palestinians acknowledged that their struggle for statehood is far from over. But they expressed hope the vote would bring them a little closer.
"This will strengthen our position, as a people and as a country," said Sahar Safi, 30, a Palestinian from Amman, Jordan, seated in Arafat Square in Ramallah with two nieces with their faces painted with Palestinian flags. "Now if Abbas wants to negotiate, he'll have more power."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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