Photo Gallery: A Victory for the Palestinians


Showdown at the United Nations Palestinian Recognition Marks Triumph over Israel

Both Israel and the US were adamantly opposed, but the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday granted the Palestinians non-member observer status, essentially an official recognition of a Palestinian state. The European Union was unable to find a common line, and Germany abstained as expected.

Helen Freedman and Ari Briggs were completely alone on Thursday afternoon in New York. They were standing in the middle of a small traffic island in front of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan and waving the Israeli flag. They had scrawled "No 'Palestinian' State" on a sign. The quotation marks around the word "Palestinian" were intentional.

The mini-protest was the pair's way of venting their anger at what was happening in the building across the street. The UN General Assembly had just begun proceedings to grant the Palestinians the status of a "non-member observer state," a deeply symbolic triumph over their arch-rival Israel. But it is one that is likely to set back the peace process in the Middle East rather than drive it forward.

"The Palestinians want to destroy Israel," complained Freedman, whose organization Americans for a Safe Israel supports the settler movement in the West Bank. Before he could say more, Freedman was interrupted by screaming sirens as a motorcade rushed up First Avenue. In a moment of irony, the armored car in the middle contained Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, a half hour behind schedule, rushed into the General Assembly to receive "a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine," as he put it in his forceful speech. It was ultimately handed to him at 5 p.m. local time with 138 of the 193 UN member states voting in favor. Nine countries voted no, the US and Israel most prominent among them, and 41 countries abstained,including Germany .

Although the result of the vote was a foregone conclusion, an extended ovation erupted in the plenary. The Palestinian delegation sprang out of their seats, embraced one another and unfurled their flag. Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor, who just minutes earlier had criticized the resolution as a "march of folly," remained seated in stony silence.

'Hostile and Poisonous'

There is little doubt that Palestine's elevation to state status, at least according to the criteria laid out in the UN charter, is a diplomatic success for Abbas, particularly in his ongoing struggle for power with Hamas. But when it comes to the peace process, the vote could emerge as a Pyrrhic victory. After all, the two countries that are of particular importance for peace in the Middle East -- the US and Israel -- feel snubbed by the move.

Shortly after the vote, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "unfortunate" and "counterproductive," adding that the only way to achieve real peace was by way of direct talks. The UN vote, she said, placed new obstacles on that path. As if to prove her point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement criticizing Abbas' General Assembly speech as "hostile and poisonous."

Indeed, both sides seemed intent on using the day to further entrench their positions rather than to extend a hand. Abbas began his speech with an ode to the "beloved martyrs" who lost their lives in the most recent eight-day conflict  in the Gaza Strip, speaking of the "men, women and children, murdered along with their dreams." It set the tone for what would become repeated damnations of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, with Abbas calling it racism, apartheid, colonialism and ethnic cleansing.

Israeli Ambassador Prosor, who spoke immediately after Abbas, was no less confrontational. While he said that Israel remained committed to peace, he blasted the Palestinian president, saying that he preferred travelling to New York for symbolism rather than to Jerusalem for genuine dialogue. The resolution, he said, does nothing to promote peace. "There is only one route to Palestinian statehood," he thundered, "and that route does not run through this chamber in New York."

Confusion in the EU

Indeed, outside of the UN plenary, the vote doesn't mean much. Non-member observer states such as the Vatican have a right to speak, but not to vote. The status is seen as a springboard to eventual full membership, but with the US holding a permanent veto in the UN Security Council, such a step is not in the Palestinians' immediate future. The only thing that Israel now has to fear is that the recognition gives the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court, where they could choose to bring action against the Israelis.

For the European Union, however, the vote once again exposed the 27-member bloc's inability to reach consensus on foreign policy issues. Most EU countries, to be sure, voted in favor of Palestinian observer status, including France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Non-EU states Switzerland and Norway also supported Abbas. But others, including Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany , abstained in an effort at neutrality. Only one EU member state, the Czech Republic, voted against the Palestinians.

"We have doubts that today's resolution brings the peace process forward," said German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig, echoing the statement released earlier in the day from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. He said he feared it would do more harm than good.

Others were not as concerned, though. In the morning, the UN honored the Palestinians on what was a historical day even absent the resolution. The vote, not accidentally, had been scheduled for the 65th anniversary of the day the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was passed in 1947.

The fiery General Assembly speeches weren't the only indications of just how little has changed since then. An exhibition of a Palestinian artist was opened in the UN lobby on Thursday evening. And the titles of his abstract works mirrored the ongoing tragedy of two peoples in the Middle East: "Homeland," "Homeless," and "Jerusalem."

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