UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations General Assembly voted by a lopsided margin over U.S. and Israeli objections to grant Palestinians an enhanced status that acknowledges their long-cherished goal of statehood.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won 138 of the assembly’s 193 votes Thursday — including those of several key European states — for his proposal to have the group’s standing upgraded to “nonmember observer state” from “nonmember observer entity.”
It was the use of the word “state” that was most important to Palestinians. Abbas argued that the designation would amount to international recognition of the statehood that Palestinians have not been able to win through decades of negotiation. But it may have little practical effect on their ability to achieve it.
All the same, Palestinians danced in the streets, honked horns, hugged and set off fireworks.
“Today we are a state,” said Khalil Abdulsalam, 35, a government office worker in Ramallah, in the West Bank, shouting to be heard over the celebrating. “Today we are a part of the international community, and the rest of the world must see us as a state.”
The new status opens the way for Palestinians to press their interests through U.N. organizations, and some have suggested that they might use the International Criminal Court to accuse Israel of war crimes. But it remains unclear how aggressively Abbas will embrace a strategy that risks major retaliation from the United States and Israel.
The normally cautious Abbas laid out his plan with ringing declarations about the rights of Palestinians but with little hint of how far he intends to go. The assembly was being asked “to issue a birth certificate to the reality of the state of Palestine,” said Abbas, who received two standing ovations in the packed hall.
The U.S. and Israel say the Palestinians should achieve statehood only through direct negotiations with Israel, and they consider the proposal a disruptive end run around talks.
They were joined in voting against the proposal only by the Czech Republic, Canada, Panama, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Nauru.
France, Spain, Italy and the Scandinavian countries were with the majority in the 138-9 vote. Britain, Germany and the Netherlands were among the countries that abstained.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United Nations had made an “unfortunate and counterproductive decision” that placed “new obstacles in the path of peace.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily denounced Abbas’ speech as “defamatory and venomous.”
“Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, without preconditions, and not in one-sided U.N. decisions. By going to the U.N., the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly.”
The United States and Israel don’t want to see the collapse of Abbas’ government because they would then be left to deal with the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which they have designated a terrorist organization.
European governments, though skeptical in some cases of the benefits of the move, believe that Abbas’ moderate Palestinian faction Fatah needs visible world support for pursuing a nonviolent approach at a time when Hamas, its rival, has won new diplomatic status and domestic support for attacking Israel with thousands of rockets.
During its eight days of violence with Israel this month, Hamas was courted by Islamic and other world leaders, while Abbas was largely ignored.
Israeli officials warned that they would react strongly if Abbas moved, for example, to use the International Criminal Court against them. They also said this week that they might temporarily withhold tax revenue transfers to the Palestinians to recoup about $180 million in unpaid electricity bills, but that more punitive steps would be postponed.
U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, met with Abbas on Wednesday in New York to urge him again not to use the new status to begin a fight with Israel, which could backfire with devastating results.
Reaction in Congress may be less measured.
U.S. lawmakers have held up more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority because of questions about the U.N. proposal and the possible reconciliation of Fatah, in the West Bank, with Gaza-based Hamas.
On Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers proposed amendments to a pending defense bill that could cut off funding to the Palestinians and to countries that supported the Palestinian bid, and to the United Nations.
“There must be consequences for their rejectionism and continued irresponsibility,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Still, aides said lawmakers might be convinced to hold back if Israeli officials urged them not to take a step that could bring the collapse of the government in the West Bank.
Even as they danced in the streets during the day’s festivities, Palestinians acknowledged that their struggle for statehood was far from over. But they expressed hope that the vote would bring them a little closer.
“This will strengthen our position, as a people and as a country,” said Sahar Safi, 30, a Palestinian refugee from Amman, Jordan, seated in Arafat Square in Ramallah with two young nieces whose faces were painted with Palestinian flags. “Now if Abbas wants to negotiate, he’ll have more power.”
Mohamed Yousef, 25, a Ramallah barber, said Palestinians realized that the vote was only small step.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he said. “But we should not expect that just because we won the vote that the occupation will end. We still need the settlers to leave, prisoners to be released and refugees to come back.”
He said the recent Gaza conflict had emboldened and inspired many Palestinians in the West Bank to stand up to Israel. He said he hoped the Fatah and Hamas factions would reconcile.
“Arafat used to say that he had an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other,” Yousef said. “Abbas is our olive branch and Hamas is our gun.”
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.