ALL PRESENT: Members enter the United Nations General Assembly before Thursday’s meeting on the implicit recognition of Palestinian statehood. Picture: REUTERS
The United Nations General Assembly. Picture: REUTERS

NEW YORK — The 193-nation United Nations General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the world body to issue its long-overdue "birth certificate".

The UN victory for the Palestinians was a diplomatic setback for the US and Israel, which were joined by only a handful of countries in voting against the move to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s observer status at the UN to "non-member state" from "entity", like the Vatican.

Britain called on the US to use its influence to help break the long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Washington also called for a revival of direct negotiations.

There were 138 votes in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions. Three countries did not take part in the vote, held on the 65th anniversary of the adoption of UN resolution 181 that partitioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip set off fireworks and danced in the streets to celebrate the vote.

The assembly approved the upgrade despite threats by the US and Israel to punish the Palestinians by withholding funds for the West Bank government. UN envoys said Israel might not retaliate harshly against the Palestinians over the vote as long as they do not seek to join the International Criminal Court (ICC).

If the Palestinians were to join the ICC, they could file complaints with the court accusing Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious crimes.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the vote "unfortunate and counterproductive", while the Vatican praised the move and called for an internationally guaranteed special status for Jerusalem, something bound to irritate Israel.

The much-anticipated vote came after Mr Abbas denounced Israel from the UN podium for its "aggressive policies and the perpetration of war crimes", remarks that elicited a furious response from the Jewish state.

"Sixty-five years ago on this day, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two states and became the birth certificate for Israel," Mr Abbas told the assembly after receiving a standing ovation.

"The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded quickly, condemning Mr Abbas’ critique of Israel as "hostile and poisonous" and full of "false propaganda".

"These are not the words of a man who wants peace," Mr Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office. He reiterated Israeli calls for direct talks with the Palestinians, dismissing Thursday’s resolution as "meaningless".

ICC threat

A number of Western delegations noted that Thursday’s vote should not be interpreted as formal legal recognition of a Palestinian state. Formal recognition of statehood is something that is done bilaterally, not by the UN.

Granting Palestinians the title of "non-member observer state" falls short of full UN membership — something the Palestinians failed to achieve last year. But it does have important legal implications — it would allow them access to the ICC and other international bodies, should they choose to join.

Mr Abbas did not mention the ICC in his speech. But Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told reporters after the vote that if Israel continued to build illegal settlements, the Palestinians might pursue the ICC route.

"As long as the Israelis are not committing atrocities, are not building settlements, are not violating international law, then we don’t see any reason to go anywhere," he said.

"If the Israelis continue with such policy — aggression, settlements, assassinations, attacks, confiscations, building walls — violating international law, then we have no other remedy but really to knock those to other places," Mr Maliki said.

In Washington, a group of four Republican and Democratic senators announced legislation that would close the Palestinian office in Washington unless the Palestinians entered "meaningful negotiations" with Israel, and eliminate all US assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it turns to the ICC.

"I fear the Palestinian Authority will now be able to use the UN as a political club against Israel," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the sponsors.

Mr Abbas led the campaign to win support for the resolution, which followed an eight-day conflict this month between Israel and Islamists in the Gaza Strip, who are pledged to Israel’s destruction and oppose a negotiated peace.

The vote highlighted how deeply divided Europe is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least 17 European nations voted in favour, including Austria, France, Italy, Norway and Spain. Mr Abbas had focused his lobbying efforts on Europe, which supplies much of the aid the Palestinian Authority relies on. Britain, Germany and many others chose to abstain.

The traditionally pro-Israel Czech Republic was unique in Europe, joining the US, Israel, Canada, Panama and the tiny Pacific Island states Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia in voting against the move.

Peace talks have been stalled for two years, mainly over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have expanded despite being deemed illegal by most of the world. There are 4.3-million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.