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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.

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

“We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We did not come here to add further complications to the peace process, which Israel’s policies have thrown into the intensive care unit; rather we came to launch a final serious attempt to achieve peace. Our endeavour is not aimed at terminating what remains of the negotiations process, which has lost its objective and credibility, but rather aimed at trying to breathe new life into the negotiations and at setting a solid foundation for it based on the terms of reference of the relevant international resolutions in order for the negotiations to succeed.”

“We will accept no less than the independence of the state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the state of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue on the basis of resolution 194, as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative.

“Yet, we must repeat here once again our warning: the window of opportunity is narrowing and time is quickly running out. The rope of patience is shortening and hope is withering.“

“Every voice supporting our endeavour today is a most valuable voice of courage, and every state that grants support today to Palestine’s request for non-member observer state status is affirming its principled and moral support for freedom and the rights of peoples and international law and peace.”

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