Still, the Palestinians lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries including France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as Japan and New Zealand. Germany and Britain were among the many Western nations that abstained.
Joining the United States and Israel in voting "no" were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
Despite Thursday's triumph, the Palestinians face enormous limitations. They don't control their borders, airspace or trade, they have separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank and they have no unified army or police.
The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.
The U.N. action also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts. His rival, the Hamas militant group, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after it responded with a barrage of rocket fire to an Israeli offensive earlier this month on targets linked to the militants.
In a departure from its previous opposition, Hamas, which rules Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel, said it wouldn't interfere with the U.N. bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.
With its newly enhanced status, the Palestinians can now gain access to U.N. agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.
However, in the run-up to the U.N. vote, Abbas signaled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have claimed.
Speaking stridently at times Thursday, Abbas accused the Israelis of "colonial occupation" that institutionalizes racism and charged that the Jewish state is continuing to perpetuate "war crimes."
Still, he said the Palestinians did not come to terminate "what remains of the negotiations process" but to try "to breathe new life into the negotiations" and achieve an independent state.
"We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps," he said.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel. Abbas made clear that this remains the Palestinians' ultimate goal - hopefully soon.
The vote grants the Palestinians the same status at the U.N. as the Vatican, and they will keep their seat next to the Holy See in the assembly chamber.