NEW YORK: Despite US and Israeli opposition, the United Nations on Thursday implicitly recognised Palestine as a state, voting overwhelmingly to designate it a "non-member observer state" – the same standing accorded to the Vatican among the nations of the world.
Amid noisy cheering and applause by delegates to the UN General Assembly, the European powers France, Spain and Switzerland rebuffed entreaties from Washington that they block the Palestinian vote. Others, including Britain and Germany, opted to abstain, robbing the "No" camp of numbers that might have made it an opposing "moral majority" sought by Israel.
Australia was among the abstentions, but only after a caucus revolt forced the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to abandon plans to side with Israel and the US.
The vote was 138 to nine, with 41 abstentions. The only countries to join Israel and the US were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
Several key European countries changed their vote since last year's decision on Palestine's bid to join UNESCO. Italy and Switzerland moved from "abstain" to "yes", Germany and the Netherlands from "no" to "abstain" and Sweden from "no" to "yes".
The head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, told a packed chamber and galleries that Palestinians came to the UN as the representative and protector of international legitimacy, warning that this was a last chance to save a two-state solution to the conflict and that a window of opportunity was closing.
“The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine,” he said, after acknowledging that Israel had been issue its birth certificate in a decision by the same body 65 years earlier to the day.
Condemning the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, Mr Abbas declared: “This aggression also confirms the Israeli Government's adherence to the policy of occupation, brute force and war, which in turn obliges the international community to shoulder its responsibilities toward the Palestinian people and toward peace."
In a statement in the hours before the vote, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that the Palestinian resolution to be presented to the assembly failed to meet Israeli expectations.
“The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state, and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all,” he said. "None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward . . . and that is why Israel cannot accept it.”
After the speech his office released a statement saying: ‘‘The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF and the citizens of Israel ... Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner.’’
In Thursday's debate, the Israeli UN Ambassador, Ron Prosor, mocked Mr Abbas's claim that it was a historic day, telling the chamber the only historic aspect of the Palestinian leader's speech was its ignorance of history.
The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President
“Today the Palestinians are turning their back on peace,” Mr Prosor said. “Don’t let history record that today the UN helped them along on their march of folly.”
Arguing that Israel, too, supported a two-state resolution, Mr Prosor addressed Mr Abbas personally: "That’s right. Two states for two peoples,” he said. “In fact, President Abbas, I did not hear you use the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ this afternoon. In fact, I have never heard you say the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’. Because the Palestinian leadership has never recognised that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“(And) This resolution will not change the situation on the ground. It will not change the fact that the Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza - that is 40 per cent of the territory he claims to represent.”
Quoting Mr Netanyahu's words, Mr Prosor said Israel always stood ready to extend a hand in peace. But peace would come only from direct negotiation between the parties, not by unilateral actions in New York.
The Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, says the Palestinian Authority now has ''an opportunity to step up negotiations towards a two-state solution, which is the only way this conflict between Israel and Palestine is going to be resolved''.
An ''overwhelming majority'' of Australian support a two-state solution and are frustrated by ''lapsing to belligerence'' by both sides, according to Mr Carr.
He characterised Australia's abstention vote as being a friendly but firm middle ground.
''We abstained, we did it as a friend of Israel, more than a little impatient with the settlement activity that is making the two-state solution more difficult,'' Mr Carr said.
Mr Carr appealed to Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and to Hamas to stop firing rockets at its neighbour.
Days earlier, Israel seemingly accepted that its American-backed diplomatic challenge to the Palestinian bid had failed and earlier threats to abandon the Oslo Accords that underpin the stalled peace process, to effectively oust Mr Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority and to stanch the flow of Palestinian tax revenue collected by Israel were replaced by a low-key, wait-and-see attitude.
With his US-sponsored quasi government and his Fatah movement sidelined by the failure of the peace process and more recently by the ascendency of political Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring and a surge in popular Palestinian support for Hamas in the aftermath of the latest round of fighting, Mr Abbas is seen to be struggling for a firmer footing as a leader of his people.
With Jonathan Swan