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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, is embraced by Turklish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after a UN vote on upgrading the Palestinian Authority's status to non-member observer state, Nov. 29, 2012. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, is embraced by Turklish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after a UN vote on upgrading the Palestinian Authority's status to non-member observer state, Nov. 29, 2012. (Kathy Willens/AP)

With UN vote, Palestinians emerge triumphant Add to ...

Palestinians emerged triumphant in their bid for upgraded diplomatic status at the United Nations in a lopsided vote that drew the support of most of the world’s nations save for a handful of opponents, among them Canada.

The enhanced standing represents a major symbolic victory for embattled Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Of the nations that make up the UN General Assembly, 138 voted to grant Palestine the status of “non-member observer state.” Just nine nations voted against the measure and 41 abstained.

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The Palestinians’ new position falls well short of full voting membership but could allow them to join other UN agencies and eventually to bring cases to the International Criminal Court.

The move casts the defunct Middle East peace process into unknown territory: Two of the principal players in any negotiation, the United States and Israel, opposed the measure and cautioned the Palestinians not to proceed. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said Wednesday’s step is “unfortunate and counterproductive.”

As the vote drew near, Canada stepped into the spotlight as an unexpectedly vocal opponent. To underline the government’s position, Foreign Minister John Baird travelled to New York and delivered a high-profile speech to the UN General Assembly just before the delegates placed their votes.

“This resolution will not advance the cause of peace or spur a return to negotiations. Will the Palestinian people be better off as a result? No,” Mr. Baird said. “On the contrary, this unilateral step will harden positions and raise unrealistic expectations.”

Mr. Baird’s direct intervention at the UN demonstrates that the Harper government makes it a point of pride to cast itself as Israel’s most staunch ally. Far from worrying about being in a tiny minority on the international stage, the government has boasted that it will stand in support of Israel even if they are going against the crowd. It was Mr. Baird who decided to go to New York to make the case himself, and not at the request of Israel or the United States, his aides said.

Mr. Abbas’s diplomatic adviser, Majdi al-Khaldi, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the fact Mr. Baird made a point of delivering the hard message himself was “strange.”

“We are very shocked by the fact that this is happening,” Mr. al-Khaldi added, asserting that the United States used more reasonable language than did Canada to discuss the measure.

At the UN, Mr. Baird spoke shortly after Mr. Abbas, who delivered both a scathing critique of Israel and a plea to make peace before time runs out.

“We do not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago and that is Israel,” he said in front of a packed chamber. “We came to reaffirm the legitimacy of a state that must now achieve its independence and that is Palestine.”

At the conclusion of his speech, the assembled diplomats burst into sustained applause and some rose in a standing ovation. Mr. Abbas briefly acknowledged the vocal support, touching both his hands to his chest.

The vote was deliberately timed, 65 years to the day after the UN approved a plan to partition what was then British-ruled territory into two separate states, one Arab and one Jewish.

Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, called the Palestinian initiative a “march of folly.” The route toward peace “does not run through New York,” he said, but “through direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah.”

Canada, meanwhile, will be “considering all available next steps,” Mr. Baird said, as a result of this “utterly regrettable decision to abandon policy and principle.”

That is a hint that Canada could retaliate against Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, but Mr. Baird provided no indication of what that means – or whether it would come in the form of small, symbolic measures or more drastic steps, like expelling the Palestinian representative in Ottawa or cutting off aid.

Canada had provided $300-million in aid to the Palestinian Authority over the past five years – and though it is not as crucial as larger sums from the United States, the money does matter to the cash-strapped Palestinian treasury.

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