The 191-nation assembly, where Washington has no veto, voted 133-4 to adopt a resolution demanding the Jewish state not carry out a policy to "remove" the Palestinian president.

The United States and Israel voted "No", joined by the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.

Australia, Canada, Kenya and Colombia were among those who abstained.

Not legally binding

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office was swift to dismiss the assembly's verdict.

"This resolution is meaningless. It is only a declaration and not legally binding," Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said.

He also claimed the UN General Assembly typically passed resolutions in favour of the Palestinians.

"If the moon was a Palestinian issue, the General Assembly would vote that the moon is flat rather than round. The Israeli government, by deciding in principle to remove Arafat, only exercised its right to self-defence embodied in the UN charter," he said.

'Slap for Israel'

In the West Bank town of Ram Allah, where Arafat has been hemmed in by the Israeli army for some 20 months, the Palestinian Authority praised the resolution.

"The result of the vote is a slap for Israel and those who support it. The General Assembly vote expresses the support of the majority of member states for Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian people," said the Palestinian leader's main advisor, Nabil Abu Rudeina.

While the United States voted against the measure, Russia and the 15 European Union states voted for it.

The Palestinian minister in charge of negotiations with Israel, Saib Uraikat, added, "The majority of member states have come out in favor of the peace process, for the end of the occupation, the rights of the Palestinian people and Yasir Arafat, their elected president."

Veto

Arab and non-aligned nations asked the assembly to act after the United States vetoed a virtually identical measure on Tuesday in the 15-nation Security Council.

It was the 26th US veto of a Middle East resolution in the council, Palestinian UN envoy Nasir al-Kidwa said.

Friday's assembly vote revealed divisions in the quartet of international mediators - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - responsible for the US-driven road map intended to guide the region to lasting peace.

While the United States voted against the measure, Russia and the 15 European Union states voted for it.

Condemnation

Arafat has been confined to
Ram Allah for two years  

EU members unanimously swung in line behind the resolution after its sponsors agreed to add phrases condemning both Palestinian bombings and Israeli killings of Palestinian resistance fighters.

Israel sparked an international outcry last week when it announced a decision "to remove" Arafat as an "obstacle to peace".

It did not say how or when it would do so.

Turning to the General Assembly after a US veto in the Security Council is a time-honoured tactic for the Arab bloc as it traditionally enjoys strong support there.

But while Council votes can be binding under international law, assembly measures merely reflect the will of the international community.

Arab League

Meanwhile, the Arab League withdrew a draft resolution on Friday that called on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and allow the UN to inspect its nuclear programme, but vowed to try again next year.

Israel has not signed the NPT and has never officially admitted to having nuclear weapons.

However, non-proliferation experts estimate that Israel has from 100 to 200 nuclear bombs.