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U.N. General Assembly Votes to Upgrade Palestinian Status

By Craig Turner
Los Angeles Times
United Nations

The General Assembly upgraded the status of the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations Tuesday after an overwhelming vote that reflected increased international frustration with the stalled Middle East peace process.

The resolution, adopted over the objections of the United States and Israel, does not grant the Palestinians voting rights or authorization to nominate candidates for U.N. office, but it will give them unique status for delegates not representing a national government.

Palestinian representatives will be able to participate in U.N. debates, co-sponsor resolutions related to the Middle East and be seated in the General Assembly chamber next to Switzerland and the Vatican, two states with observer status.

Nasser Kidwa, the Palestinian observer here, hailed the decision as a "small victory" on the road toward statehood and suggested that the Palestinian Authority could unilaterally declare nationhood next May, when the interim peace agreement forged between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 expires.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the action a "minor correction" to the Palestinians' current position and expressed satisfaction that the General Assembly had stopped short of granting them the status of a full member state.

"I am pleased that the Palestinian goal of raising their status to an almost state' was not reached," he told reporters. "They did achieve certain improvements that are very, very far from those they wanted, and this in itself is cause for satisfaction."

Netanyahu added, however: "I am concerned with the actual attempt by the Palestinians to predetermine their international status, because this is a clear violation" of the peace accords.

In Washington, the Clinton administration reacted angrily to the decision, which officials said will make it even more difficult to break the stalemate in the peace process.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the move was similar to other "misbegotten efforts by the General Assembly in years past to inject themselves in what is obviously a sensitive, delicate and difficult process."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin added that the vote "undermines the chances of bringing peace to the Middle East. It undermines those very people who it was presumably designed to help." He said it was a mistake for the Palestinians to insist on the action and a blunder by other countries to go along with it.

But Rubin rejected suggestions that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat broke a promise to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by pushing the measure to a vote.

"He offered to delay it but he did not offer to not do it," Rubin said. He said the vote was delayed for more than a week.

The vote on the proposal, sponsored by 22 mostly Arab states, was 1244, with 10 abstentions. Only Micronesia and the Marshall Islands joined the United States and Israel in opposition. Most of the United States' most important friends and allies, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Argentina, South Africa and Australia, voted in favor.

European diplomats said impatience with what they called Israeli intransigence on the deadlocked Middle East peace process was an important factor in their decision to vote with the majority Tuesday. Last December, the countries of the European Union played a key role in blocking a similar proposal before the General Assembly. But they reversed their position after the Palestinians agreed to adjustments in the resolution and after the failure of the Clinton administration's latest attempts to move the peace process forward.

The United Nations granted the Palestine Liberation Organization observer status in 1974 and changed the name of the delegation to Palestine in 1988. The designation provides the delegates limited rights to participate in U.N. activities and maintain offices at the world body's headquarters in New York.