UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations voted overwhelmingly Thursday to recognize a Palestinian state, a victory decades in the making for the Palestinians after years of occupation and war. It was a sharp rebuke for Israel and the United States.
A Palestinian flag was quickly unfurled on the floor of the General Assembly, behind the Palestinian delegation, as the final vote was cast.
In an extraordinary lineup of international support, more than two-thirds of the world body's 193 member states approved the resolution upgrading the Palestinians to a nonmember observer state. It passed 138-9, with 41 abstentions.
The historic vote came 65 years to the day after the U.N. General Assembly voted in 1947 to divide Palestine 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 followed.
Real independence, however, remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution. Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their U.N. status.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, jubilant Palestinians crowded into the main square, waving Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great!" Hundreds had watched the vote on outdoor screens and televisions, and they hugged, honked their horns and set off fireworks as the final vote was cast.
The tally came after a speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which he called the moment a "last chance" to save the two-state solution.
"The General Assembly is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine," the Palestinian leader declared.
The United States and Israel immediately criticized the vote.
"Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path of peace," U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said. "Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded."
Calling the vote "meaningless," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of spreading "mendacious propaganda" against Israel in a speech he rejected as "defamatory and venomous."
"The resolution in the U.N. today won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu said. "It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off."
With most U.N. members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there had been 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 United States and Israel in voting "no" were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
Despite Thursday's triumph, the Palestinians face enormous limitations. They don't control their borders, airspace or trade, they have separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank and they have no unified army or police.
The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.
The U.N. action also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts. His rival, the Hamas militant group, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after it responded with a barrage of rocket fire to an Israeli offensive earlier this month on targets linked to the militants.
In a departure from its previous opposition, Hamas, which rules Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel, said it wouldn't interfere with the U.N. bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.
With its newly enhanced status, the Palestinians can now gain access to U.N. agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.
However, in the run-up to the U.N. vote, Abbas signaled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have claimed.
Speaking stridently at times Thursday, Abbas accused the Israelis of "colonial occupation" that institutionalizes racism and charged that the Jewish state is continuing to perpetuate "war crimes."
Still, he said the Palestinians did not come to terminate "what remains of the negotiations process" but to try "to breathe new life into the negotiations" and achieve an independent state.
"We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps," he said.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel. Abbas made clear that this remains the Palestinians' ultimate goal – hopefully soon.
The vote grants the Palestinians the same status at the U.N. as the Vatican, and they will keep their seat next to the Holy See in the assembly chamber.
Associated Press writers Michael Astor and Peter Spielmann at the United Nations, Haitham Hamad and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Robert Burns and Bradley Klapper in Washington and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.