On Nov. 29, exactly 65 years after the U.N. approved the partition plan effectively recognizing the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority officially became a nonmember observer state in the U.N. with the overwhelming support of 138 countries, including France, Spain and Italy.
The 1947 partition plan called for an end to the British Mandate in Palestine and its division into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. Israel became a state but the Palestinians rejected the partition plan, and decades of tension and violence have ensued.
In an extraordinary line-up of international support, more than two-thirds of the world body’s 193 member states approved the resolution upgrading the status. It passed 138-9, with 41 abstentions.
With most U.N. members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there was no doubt the resolution would be approved. A state of Palestine has already been recognized by 132 countries, and the Palestinians have 80 embassies and 40 representative offices around the world, according to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Still, the Palestinians lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries including France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as Japan and New Zealand. Germany and Britain were among the many Western nations that abstained.
Joining the U.S. and Israel in voting “no” were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
In Jerusalem, it was very evident that Israel had suffered a humiliating defeat, having opposed the Palestinian effort to gain recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly. Officials took comfort in the knowledge that at least the U.S. stood by Israel, despite past tensions.
"In practice, today's decision won't change anything," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Thursday. "This declaration won't hasten the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will only push it further away."
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly prior to the vote, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of committing war crimes.
"The window of opportunity is closing, and it is a shame. Patience is running out, and hope is dying out. In past months we heard an unending succession of Israeli threats. You all saw how some of those threats were carried out in a barbaric way in the Gaza Strip. We didn't hear a single word truly in favor of rescuing the peace process from those in Israel who are in charge, on the contrary. In fact, there is constant escalation on the military front, a siege, ethnic cleansing, large-scale arrests and other acts reminiscent of apartheid, stemming from racism and hatred," Abbas told the assembly.
"Is there anyone in this region who needs assistance in this regard more than us?" he asked the world's representatives. "Your support for our initiative can create a tiny bit of hope that can block the Israeli aggression. You support will send a message to our people that they are not alone and that their gamble on insisting on international legitimacy hasn't failed."
Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor followed Abbas at the podium with a rebuttal speech, saying, "True friends of the Palestinians have a responsibility to tell them the truth. They will stop promoting the distorted version of history that characterizes this day, and start delivering the real lessons of history that the Palestinian leadership now refuses to heed. These lessons are clear: Bilateral negotiations are the only route to two states, for two peoples — living side by side in peace and security; negotiations that resolve the outstanding concerns of both sides."
On a diplomatic level, the U.N. decision was not only an embarrassment for Israel, but also for the U.S., which tried pressuring senior Palestinian officials in recent months to refrain from approaching the U.N. The U.S. immediately criticized the historic vote. "Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace," U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said.
Speaking at a conference in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called the resolution "unfortunate and counterproductive."
She said the U.S. believed that "only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace that both deserve: two states for two people, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel."
The Palestinians chose to submit their bid for statehood to the General Assembly, where, as opposed to the U.N. Security Council, no state has veto power.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the U.N. decision, saying that it could promote the peace process and give it the push it needs. "The reality in Palestine is a bleeding wound on humanity's conscience," Davutoglu said in an emotional speech.
Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, reactions were joyful. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called the vote an "extremely significant" step.
Speaking in Washington, Fayyad said he hoped the historic moment would be seized to advance the peace process.
"While extremely significant, we cannot but worry about the reality of the day after. And what I really hope ... is that this moment is actually seized in order to advance the process in a way that has eluded us for a very long period of time," Fayyad said. "The reality, the day after, obviously is going to be dominated as it is today, as it was the day before, by the reality of an oppressive occupation that has been with us for more than 45 years. That is not going to go away unless something else happens. What happened today is extremely significant. It's a step of a great deal of symbolism and it moved us all, Palestinians throughout the world. People felt great about it, not only in Ramallah but throughout the Palestine diaspora. All freedom-loving people around the world would appreciate how deep and significant a moment this is."