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Palestinians See U.N. Status Vote As A Game Changer

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There was celebration in Palestinian territories tonight after Palestinians won an upgrade in their status at the United Nations. The U.N. General Assembly voted today overwhelmingly in favor of making Palestine a non-member observer state. That's the same status as the Vatican. The vote was 138 in favor, nine against, with 41 abstentions. The U.S. and Israel argue this will make peace negotiations even more difficult. The Palestinians say it's simply a move toward a more level playing field. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was greeted with loud applause as he urged the U.N. General Assembly to save the prospects for Palestinian statehood. Through an interpreter, he called the resolution a birth certificate for Palestine.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS: (Through Translator) We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel. Rather, we came to affirm the legitimacy of a state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.

KELEMEN: Palestinians see this vote as a game changer according to Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee in Ramallah.

HANAN ASHRAWI: This kind of change will immediately show that we are a nation with the right to self-determination, that our land is occupied territory and that Israel is occupying another state's land, and therefore is subject to all the laws and the conventions that govern the behavior of nations.

KELEMEN: She says she hopes this will give Palestinians a slightly better edge in any talks with Israel. Before the vote, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained the significance of this day.

BAN KI-MOON: Sixty-five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 proposing the partition of the mandate territory into two states. Sixty-five years later, this vision of a two-state solution remains tragically unfulfilled.

KELEMEN: And he says the costs of the stalled peace process rise every day. But the U.S. argues that it will be harder now to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice says that's why she cast one of the nine no-votes.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Today's unfortunate and counter-productive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace.

KELEMEN: It will also be harder for the administration to persuade Congress to release desperately needed aid to the Palestinians. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called it outrageous that the Palestinians rebuffed the U.S. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham says if the Palestinians use their new status to take legal action against Israel, the U.S. should cut off funding and shut down the Palestinian office here in Washington.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: It won't be very long until the Palestinians begin to use the U.N. as a club against Israel rather than seeking peace. And our big fear is that the international criminal court would be available to the Palestinians potentially to file complaints against the IDF and every other institution in Israel and would marginalize the Jewish state.

KELEMEN: Hanan Ashrawi says Palestinians are not in a mad rush to go the International Criminal Court but they are planning to join international conventions to hold Israel to account. She bristles at the warnings from Congress, saying U.S. lawmakers are always shielding Israel and trying to blackmail Palestinians.

ASHRAWI: They will punish the people who will adopt a peaceful and modern and legal stance, and they will reward those who are stealing other people's land, killing them and oppressing them and getting away with it. It's an incredible and painful irony as far as I'm concerned.

KELEMEN: Palestinians have been asking other countries to provide aid for a safety net in case the U.S. does cut off assistance and Israel withholds Palestinian tax revenue. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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