by Barbara Crossette, The New York Times, International, Wednesday, July 8, 1998
United Nations, July 7 - The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly today to give the Palestinians a larger role in the United Nations and a voice in many of its peripheral activities.
The Palestinians, already members of several groups of developing nations, hailed the vote as a first step toward full United Nations membership.
The resolution cites elections in Palestinian territories in January 1996 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, a self-governing entity in the West Bank and Gaza, as evidence that Palestinians are now responsible for administering territory on their own.
Israel's representative, Dore Gold, denounced this link as a "transparent effort" to influence talks about the final status of disputed territories. His comments reflect growing fears in Israel that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is likely to declare a Palestinian state next year, raising the possibility of new bloodshed.
The vote - 124 to 4, with 10 abstentions and 26 countries not present - overcame the strong opposition of the United States. There are no vetoes in the Assembly and a majority vote carries.
The resolution in effect creates a new "super-observer" status for the Palestinians - or Palestine, as the delegation has been known officially since 1988.
Palestinians will now have the right to take part in General Assembly debate and reply to other speeches; to co-sponsor resolutions on Middle East issues, and to take part in a range of United Nations conferences and meetings.
The Palestinians will not have the right to vote in the General Assembly, however. And nothing in today's actions affects the work of the Security Council, which already allows the Palestinians to speak in formal sessions when the interests of the Palestinian people are involved.
Bill Richardson, the United States representative, said before the vote that the move is "the wrong resolution at the wrong time." He said it would set a precedent for other observers or non-members.
"If this resolution passes, it will undermine our efforts to get the peace process back on track and hurt everyone's interests, including those it most intended to help," Mr. Richardson said in a speech. "Exchanging momentum toward real progress on the ground for symbolic progress in this chamber does not strike us as a good bargain."
In Washington, the State Department condemned the vote in strong terms. The department spokesman, James P. Rubin, said the Clinton Administration considered the vote an unnecessary and untimely mistake that could lead to unilateral actions on the part of the Israelis.
"We think that this decision undermines the chances of bringing peace to the Middle East," Mr. Rubin said. "It undermines those very people who it was presumably designed to help. And it may be a symbolic victory for some, but it makes it harder to prevent the two sides from taking unilateral actions that can harm the peace process. This is a unilateral action that we believe was unnecessary and untimely."
At a time when Congress is at its most critical toward the United Nations, today's vote is sure to intensify the antagonism on Capitol Hill. Benjamin A. Gilman, the New York Republican who is chairman of the House international relations committee, described the vote as "a slap in the face" of Israel. "It is deplorable that, despite the Palestinians' having failed to meet many of their commitments under the Oslo accords, they should be rewarded in such a manner," he said in a statement. "It recalls for many of us the abhorrent resolution equating Zionism with racism that this very same General Assembly once adopted."
After making some progress earlier in this decade in reducing the isolation of Israel at the United nations, the United States has been increasingly sidelined more recently on Middle East issues, which it tries to keep out of the United Nations as much as possible.
Today only Israel, the Marshal Islands and Micronesia voted with Washington.
The European Union countries, Canada and Russia were among those voting for the resolution, which was first introduced in December, then deferred for further study.
Ernst Sucharipa, the representative of Austria, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said that the Europeans had concluded that the resolution would not set new legal precedents for the organization.
Europe supported the move, he said, in recognition of the "practical difficulties" the Palestinians were having in their work as observers at the United Nations.
The Palestinians, having finally won this round, intend to press for full General Assembly membership, their delegation leader, Nasser Al-Kidwa, said today.
"A small victory was achieved for Palestine today and we thank you for that," he said in a speech after the voted. "However, we do want to say that it is our hope that our reliance on this resolution passed today will not last for a long time, as we hope that the United Nations will accept Palestine as a member state in the near future."
Mr. Al-Kidwa said he hoped to see Palestine accepted as a full member in the next General Assembly session, beginning in September.
"That shall be the big victory," he said.
Today's resolution was sponsored by a group of Arab nations, joined by Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, Malaysia, Vietnam and several African countries.
At the American Jewish Committee, Arthur S. Berger, the spokesman, said the effort by the Arab and third-world nations was a step back for the United nations. "Unfortunately this reminds a lot of people of the way the United Nations General Assembly used to be when an absolute majority of members would vote for anything that was anti-Israel," he said in an interview.
"In effect, what this does is try to influence the final status of negotiations while the Palestinians and the Israelis are at a critical moment. That's not helpful. In fact, it can be quite unhelpful."
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said: "The U.N. member states might one day regret this decision because it could establish a precedent that could return in the form of other disgruntled political movements bypassing the negotiating framework and establishing facts through U.N. maneuvering."