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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 ...

The Harper government’s position on the vote set it apart from some traditional partners. France supported the Palestinian position, while the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia abstained from voting.

For Israel and the United States, the vote was a humiliating defeat acted out on the largest international stage. Although a vote in the UN General Assembly early on appeared to be a losing proposition, the hope was to retain a “moral majority” composed of major nations.

“This was just a bad idea to oppose this thing in the way we did,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a professor at Princeton and former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “We’re ending up with nothing. Europe has basically walked over to the other side.”

The vote could help bolster Palestinian moderates at a time when rival Islamists in Hamas are gaining support, particularly after their recent deadly clash with Israel in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians who favour a non-violent, political approach “need to show success,” said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan who teaches at the University of Windsor.

Even some Israeli politicians agree. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told the Daily Beast he felt the Palestinian move was “congruent” with the goal of a two-state solution for the Middle East and he saw no reason to oppose it. “It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians,” he said.

The new status could give the Palestinian leadership access to more international institutions, most notably the International Criminal Court. Prior to the vote, American and British diplomats sought assurances from the Palestinian Authority that it wouldn’t pursue Israel for its actions at the tribunal. There was no sign they received such promises. In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Abbas decried Israel for what he said was its “perpetration of war crimes.”

If Palestine seeks to join other UN bodies as a full member, it could present a thorny problem for the United States as well as the organizations themselves. Under U.S. law, the country cannot fund “specialized UN agencies” that grant Palestine the same privileges as member states, said Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The United States halted funding to UNESCO after it voted to admit Palestine last year.

Some experts questioned whether the Palestinians had achieved anything beyond a momentary victory that would prove hollow.

“This is a key to an empty room,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center in Washington and former diplomat who served as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

“It proves that what matters is what happens on the ground,” he said. “It’s the cruellest of ironies that it is rockets from Hamas and not diplomacy by [Mahmoud] Abbas that put the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda.”

Outrage and elation

Statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and the citizens of Israel. Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner. ... The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, without preconditions, and not in one-sided UN decisions. By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel, and Israel will act accordingly.”

Scene in Ramallah on the West Bank:

A jubilant crowd of perhaps 4,000 people crammed the central Arafat Square in downtown Ramallah on a chilly night to usher in the birth of a state.

Honking cars filled the streets, people waved flags from the windows or on the roofs of vehicles, while several young men fired live ammunition from their rifles into the air.

“Abu Mazen is our hero,” was the common refrain.

But amidst the enthusiasm there was great uncertainty about what it all meant to have a state such as this.

Said Mohammed, 35, a worker in a Ramallah carpet factory, said he was “overjoyed” at having a state. But when asked what difference it would make, he replied: “God only knows.”

Key quotes from Abbas UN speech

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