By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday 138-9 with 41 abstentions to grant Palestine non-member state status.
The vote does not settle outstanding issues with Israel or change anything on the ground, say experts.
"We are here for a final serious attempt to achieve peace," Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told General Assembly delegates before the vote. "Not to end the negotiation process... rather to breathe new life into the negotiation process."
Vuk Jeremic, president of the General Assembly acknowledged the historical nature of the vote and called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders "to work for peace, negotiate in good faith and succeed."
Israelis say the Palestinian appeal for non-member state status will make peace less likely. Currently the Palestinian Authority has the status of U.N. observer.
Abbas went forward despite appeals to postpone the request, which the United States says will only make negotiations for a permanent state less likely to happen.
"If the Israeli authorities want to threaten my life, they can," Abbas said according to Palestinian news agency Ma'an. "The whole world realizes that the Palestinian Authority, with all its political and security services, and administrative bodies, has been ready to upgrade its status for six years."
The Israeli government did not threaten Abbas' life, but said said that peace is only achieved through negotiations, and not by unilateral declarations that do not take into consideration Israel security needs.
"Israel's hand is always extended in peace, but a Palestinian state will not be established without recognition of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, without an end-of-conflict declaration, and without true security arrangements that will protect Israel and its citizens," he said Thursday.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defense bill that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.
"Increasing the Palestinians' role in the United Nations is absolutely the wrong approach, especially in light of recent military developments in the Middle East," he said in a statement. "Israel is one of America's closest allies, and any movement to strengthen one of its fiercest enemies must not be tolerated."
In his speech, Abbas said he"did not come here to de-legitimize a state established years ago, that is Israrel. Rather we are here to affirm a state that must achieve its independence, and that is Palestine."
His bid to seek U.N.recognition was met with "an incessant flood of Israeli threats," he said, including "justification of military assaults and ethnic cleansing,particularly in east Jerusalem."
Israel's occupation "is becoming consistent with an apartheid system" that promotes "racial hatred and incitement," he said. "The window of opportunity is narrowing and time is running out."
Israel and the United States are concerned that the Palestinians are trying to create a state without negotiating a lasting peace with Israel and solving once and for all the issues that have prevented a resolution to the conflict.
Palestinians are "trying to grab statehood without having to compromise with Israel," said David Weinberg, director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Israel.
Rather than leading to a Palestinian state or improving the prospects for negotiations with Israel, the bid will do the opposite, Weinberg said. "It will harden positions on all sides and force Israel to take actions against Abbas' authority that will set any chances of real peace emerging back for years."
Among the issues to be decided are the status of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim for a capital, the details of borders and security, mutual recognition and refugee claims.
Palestinian leaders are pressing ahead, arguing that improving their status at the United Nations will give them better bargaining power against Israel, which they say has been stalling on negotiations while expanding settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a former peace negotiator, said upgrading Palestinian status in the United Nations from observer to non-member state status will "enshrine our right to self-determination and statehood" and "help prevent Israel from destroying the chances for peace."
She said Israel is working against peace by annexing Jerusalem and building a security barrier on land that should belong in a Palestinian state.
The world must move quickly, "unless there are no more chances of peace," she said.
Unlike Abbas' failed attempt at gaining full state recognition in 2011, Thursday's measure does not require Security Council approval or risk a U.S. veto.
Many U.N. countries are likely to agree to the Palestinian request, including France, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway, according to Israeli news outlet Ynet News. The United States sees it as the wrong move, according to the State Department.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian nation won't help Palestinians or Israelis reach a lasting two-state peace agreement. Clinton said the "path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York."
"We're focused on a policy objective on the ground for the Palestinian people, for the people of Israel, which is to end up with two states that can live peacefully next to each other," Nuland said. "Nothing in this action at the U.N. is going to take the Palestinians any closer to that. ... We think it makes other steps that might improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis harder."
Israel says the U.N. request contradicts agreements with the Palestinians that issues of statehood and sovereignty would be settled through negotiations.
Israel has threatened to withhold tax revenue it collects for the Palestinian Authority, while members of Congress have threatened to cut aid payments to the Palestinian governing body. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said only negotiations with Israel can bring about a Palestinian state.
Three Israeli prime ministers have offered Palestinian negotiators a Palestinian state on 100% of Gaza and more than 90% of the West Bank with additional land swaps from inside Israel to make up the difference.
Weinberg said there's room for compromise, "but Israel's not going to fold under international dictate coming through Palestinian maneuvers in the U.N. where they have an automatic majority."
Many negotiations have taken place since peace talks began with the Oslo accords in 1994 but have not resulted in agreement. Abbas insisted that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem cease before talks resumed. Israel won't accept such preconditions.
Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former Middle East peace negotiator for the State Department, said Abbas' bid at the United Nations is "a non-consequential move by a weak player holding very weak cards."
The U.N. status may allow the Palestinians to request charges against Israeli actions in international bodies such as the International Criminal Court. Even if Palestinians bring Israel before U.N. legal bodies, the outcome of such efforts is uncertain because Israel would bring counter charges against the Palestinians, Miller said.