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Now What? The State Of Palestinian Statehood

Palestinian children play in the rubble of a house that was hit by an Israeli strike during Israel's recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip Saturday. (AP)

Guy Raz, host of weekends on "All Things Considered," separately interviewed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. To hear the interviews as they aired for the show, click on the audio link above.

The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution Thursday that changed Palestinians' status to a "non-member observer state." It's a significant step in Palestinian-Israeli relations, but whether backward or forward depends on who's talking.

Israel and the U.S., along with seven other countries, voted against the resolution — which does not confer official statehood, but is a symbolic victory for Palestinians, who celebrated the news in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad says the resolution is "powerful symbolism."

"It doesn't get us what we want now, in the sense of what we want being a fully independent and sovereign state of Palestine where our people can live in freedom and dignity," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "But it's significant, certainly, given that it was something that happened [in] precisely that forum that some 65 years ago gave Israel its birth certificate."

But the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, says Israel strongly objects to the U.N. decision because "it represents an end-run to the peace process."

"The Palestinian authority signed on agreements with Israel that said that there'd be no alternative to direct negotiations," he tells Raz in a separate interview. "The only way to reach a two-state solution for two people was for Israelis and Palestinians to sit and to work out the very complex issues between us."

On behalf of the U.S., U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice called the move provocative. "Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace," she said following the vote.

The Political Equation

Oren says the latest developments set the peace process back and that the Palestinians' move in the U.N. violates their commitments to the U.S.

"The United States is co-signatory to these agreements that say that there's no alternative to direct negotiations, and that's why President Obama also opposed the Palestinian move in the United Nations," Oren says.

However, he says the shift in status will not actually change the overall political equation. It would make a difference, though, if the Palestinians used the status as a way to access the International Criminal Court and accuse Israel of war crimes. If that happened, Oren says Israel would fight back.

"President [Mahmoud] Abbas has now claimed that he is the president of a state that includes the Gaza Strip. In the Gaza Strip, there's an organization called Hamas that has fired thousands of rockets against millions of Israeli citizens. Now that is a war crime, by any definition," he says. "And we could take Abbas to an international court and accuse him of war crimes too."

But, Oren says, Israel would rather negotiate.

An Israeli Case For 'State' Status

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tells Raz that he does not oppose the change in Palestinians' U.N. status.

"I didn't see any reason to oppose it. Look, the fundamental interest — long-range strategic interest — of the state of Israel is that we will have the international bodies and primarily the United Nations recognize the two-state solution," he says, "so that there will never be any doubt as to the right of Israel to have its own Jewish independent state."

The Palestinian resolution actually emphasizes the two-state solution, Olmert says.

"Of course, it requires negotiation afterward. But I didn't see that this particular proposition that was adopted by the U.N. is in contradiction to the basic interests of the state of Israel," he says. "Why should we isolate ourselves from the entire international community and have a vote in the United Nations where 139 nations vote against us? What was so smart in this? I don't understand."

A Process Of 'Disappointment'

The day after the U.N. vote, Israel declared plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. called it "counterproductive," while Fayyad asks, "What is it we did, Palestinians, to warrant this kind of reaction by way of retaliation?

"What we did was to go the United Nations, the custodian of international law and legitimacy," he says. "So I think the response needs to be one that is shaped by the need to take advantage of what happened — to build on it — as opposed to continue to be scornful about it."

Oren says that "the only way to reach genuine peace is through direct and candid negotiations," and points out that Palestinians did not negotiate even when Israeli settlement expansion was frozen for 10 months.

"We strongly believe that the only way for the Palestinians to change the reality on the ground, to actually have a real Palestinian state — not a virtual Palestinian state ... is through genuine peace," he says.

Fayyad says everyone is in favor of the goal of a peace accord but notes that the process has been "a story of disappointment."

"We have not abandoned, nor will we abandon the path of negotiated settlement to peace," he says, adding, "But what we really need is a strong enough negotiations framework credible enough to deal with the credibility deficit that has been generated by failure."

Yet Palestinians themselves are divided. The Palestinian Authority faces the added complication of Hamas, the leadership in Gaza. However, Fayyad says the divergence in their views on Israel does not rule out the possibility of meaningful negotiations.

"The negotiations are supposed to take place between the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, acting on behalf of all Palestinians," he says. "I think if people begin to see the process moving in a serious and credible enough manner, that cannot but have positive ramifications for the prospect of reunification of our country."

Politics In Israel

On the Israeli side, Olmert says he is hopeful there will be change. He would like to see a shift in Israel's politics and policies, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu is re-elected with a hardline government in January.

"But on the other hand, one can look back at the last four years and say to himself that [in] four years we didn't do anything that would encourage the resumption of [a] serious, meaningful peace process, so why do we have to expect that something will change?" he says.

He says time is running out for Israel. Olmert worries that without progress, more Palestinians and members of the international community "will resort to the one-state-for-two-people solution."

"That which will change entirely the nature of the state of Israel," he says, "and I am not sure that this is what we were dreaming all our history for."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

This hour, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, bestselling Christian novelist Paul Young and superstar Ricky Martin all in the same hour. But first to our cover story today: Inching closer to Palestinian statehood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The result of the voting is as follows: In favor, 138; opposed, nine.

RAZ: Sounds from the United Nations earlier this week where the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution granting the Palestinian Authority nonmember observer status. It's not official statehood, but a symbolic victory for Palestinians nonetheless who celebrated the news in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Israel and the United States, along with seven other countries, voted against the resolution. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, called it provocative.

SUSAN RICE: Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace.

RAZ: In a few minutes, we'll ask Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, why his government regards the vote as a threat. And later, we'll hear from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on why Israel should not have worked against that motion. But first to Salam Fayyad. He's an economist who spent years at the International Monetary Fund.

Since 2007, he's been the Palestinian prime minister. And this weekend, he's in Washington, along with current and former Israeli leaders, to take part in the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations. And Prime Minister Fayyad joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

PRIME MINISTER SALAM FAYYAD: Pleasure to be with you.

RAZ: How does the now upgraded nonmember observer status at the U.N. help get Palestinians closer to achieving independence?

FAYYAD: It by itself is a significant step, powerful symbolism, there's no question. It doesn't get us what we want now in the sense of what we want being a fully independent and sovereign state of Palestine where our people can live in freedom and dignity. But it's significant, certainly. But given that was something that happened precisely that forum that some 65 years ago gave Israel its birth certificate.

RAZ: It was on the anniversary of that date, in fact, that the vote was taken.

FAYYAD: Yeah. A lot of people missed that. Actually, it was then, 29th of November, actually, when it happened, exactly 65 years after the historic vote taken by the same General Assembly.

RAZ: As you know, Israel announced the expansion of settlements in east of Jerusalem, in land that you hope will be your - part of your future state. To what extent does that complicate things for you?

FAYYAD: Enormously. And it has been going on. Actually, that's one key reason why the political process lost much of its credibility after the U.N. vote took on a dimension of being projected as retaliatory measure. There is need, you know, for the government of Israel to listen to voices of reason, including Israel itself. I'd have several people of north, including, I believe, former Prime Minister Olmert who are in favor of not opposing the Palestinian motion and the United Nations.

RAZ: Well, we'll hear from him in a moment.

FAYYAD: You know, after all, you know, what is it that we did, Palestinians, to warrant this kind of action by way of retaliation? What we did was to go to the United Nations, the custodian of international law and legitimacy. So I think the response needs to be one that is shaped by the need to take advantage of what happened to build on it as opposed to continue to be scornful about it and to really be driven by sense of anger, frustration or wanting to basically retaliate.

I mean, that just wrong, and it continues to create more fight on the ground that are detrimental to the prospects of continued viability of - to set solution. I can't tell you this and other measures that may be undertaken by the government of Israel in response to what we did could cripple the Palestinian Authority and undermine whatever remains of its political viability. And again, that will be harmful to all of us.

RAZ: As we'll hear in a moment, Israeli officials, when asked about negotiations, their argument is that the Palestinian Authority has been unwilling to negotiate with Israel without preconditions. Is that true? And if so, why?

FAYYAD: You know, it isn't really. And I think, remember, this does require a bit of careful and deliberate consideration and distinction between what it is that people mean when they say negotiations. Whether there's a process that they're talking about, whether it's substance that they're talking about, no one can - in their right mind, whether Palestinian or Israeli say they're against negotiations because the substance of what is between us or has been between us since we had entered into this Oslo framework going back to 1993 is a path of negotiations to a settlement, a fair and lasting settlement, one that guarantees Israel's security and on the other hand provides us, Palestinians, with the opportunity to live as free people with dignity in a free Palestine.

That's the essence of it. The process has gone on way too long without it being productive. Not only that, but actually it has been a story of disappointment that that's not really outside disillusionment. The occupational regime has not become loser. If anything, the occupation has become more deeply entrenched. So the question as to what it is that we are really involved in here, a process that is credible enough, strong enough to deliver on that which we all want to see happen, an end to Israeli occupation, security for all Palestinians and Israelis, a lasting settlement, sustainable one and all. On the one hand, a process about this or substantive engagement.

When you really actually look at what has been happening on the ground, it's very difficult to view the process as having been strong enough to deliver, either by us, Palestinians, or Israelis. So something needs to happen in order to really put things on track. We have not abandoned, nor will we abandon, the path of negotiation of settlement to peace. We are committed to it. We have been. We will continue to be. But what we really need is a strong enough negotiation's framework, credible enough to deal with the credibility deficit that has been generated by failure.

RAZ: How do you explain the plausibility of a peace deal - a genuine peace deal - to skeptical Israelis who say, you don't speak for the Palestinian leadership in Gaza led by Hamas that is unwilling to recognize Israel and seeks its destruction? What's your answer to that question?

FAYYAD: I believe it would be wrong strategy to wait for the perfect alignment of stars before we begin to do meaningful things in a substantive way to produce outcomes. There's a serious problem, agree. But it is not something that precludes the possibility of a meaningful negotiation between the sides. Why do I say so? Negotiations are supposed to take place between the PLO, Palestine Liberation Organization, acting on behalf of all Palestinians.

It had that power. It was empowered to do this, actually by virtue of the Oslo Accords going back to 1993 when Israel - government of Israel then - recognized the PLO as representative - legitimate representative of Palestinian people throughout the world, not only in Palestine. Now, that body's still there, and it is the body empowered to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.

I think as people begin to see the process moving in a serious and credible enough manner, that cannot but have positive ramifications for the prospect of reunification of our country. It's something, by the way, that I - before the Israelis would say - is absolutely necessary if we are going to have a state. Because without Gaza, the Palestinian state is going to lose much of its appeal to many Israelis because those who are in favor of two-state solution in Israel - most of them anywhere - argue the case as one of an Israeli influence on demographic grounds. If Gaza is allowed to continue to drift along the path of becoming a standalone entity, that and to this count would mean that some 1.7 million Palestinians are dealt out of that demographic equation.

RAZ: Since you've been prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, your approach has been to focus on institution building and creating structures even in the face of pretty overwhelming obstacles. There are those who say your approach is naive, including many Palestinians, that this will not bring you, the Palestinians, closer to achieving statehood. So when people ask what's the point, what do you say?

FAYYAD: If a state is what we want, and if it is really our overriding objective - we Palestinians that is - it makes a great deal of sense for us to get busy building one, even under occupation. You can't really build a state. You can't achieve statehood. You can't achieve freedom if you are of a defeatist mind-set. You need to overcome that. And I thought by virtue of focusing on getting ready for statehood, we can inspire ourselves and move people along with us.

I thought it was immensely the right - I thought that it was really the right thing to do then, and I still do. There were skeptics from the very beginning. Unfortunately, there was validation to that point of view. With the passage of time, with us delivering on the objectives of getting our institutions to be institutions of a functional state and all, but with no prospect of the occupation ending soon, a lot of people - a lot more people started to buy into the theory that, well, you know, this is about adapting to the reality of prolonged occupation.

Again, if a state is what we want, we had better get ready for it. I mean, that's basically what it is. It's so basic. If it was not sufficiently transformative, question for all of us now is what is it that needs to be done to make it so.

RAZ: Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He joined us here in the studio. He's here in Washington, D.C., for the Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations. Prime Minister, thank you so much.

FAYYAD: My pleasure. Thank you.

RAZ: Stay with us. In a moment, we'll hear from Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, and also former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who argues that his country needs to take big risks and fast before time runs out. And later, what's the biggest mistake superstar Ricky Martin ever made? He says waiting too long to acknowledge he's gay.

RICKY MARTIN: Oh, my God, I wish I had the courage to do it way before, to be honest.

RAZ: Ricky Martin on love, life and being back on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Before the break, we heard from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on what an upgraded status at the U.N. means for the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the U.S. strongly opposed that resolution. We asked Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, why his government sees it as a threat.

MICHAEL OREN: Because it represents an end run to the peace process. You know, the Palestinian Authority signed on agreements with Israel that said that there'd be no alternative to direct negotiations. The only way to reach a two-state solution for two people was for Israelis and Palestinians to sit and to work out the very complex issues between us. If you just run to the U.N. and declare that you're a state, you get the territory without giving the peace, you really haven't advanced the peace process. You've set it back.

Those are also violations of the Palestinians commitments to the United States. The United States is cosignatory to these agreements that say that there's no alternative to direct negotiations, and that's why President Obama also opposed the Palestinian move in the United Nations.

RAZ: How, though, will nonmember observer status substantively change the political equation?

OREN: Well, they really won't. And the only way it could be changed is if the Palestinians try to use this nonmember status in the General Assembly as a means of going to international bodies like the International Criminal Court and try to accuse Israel of war crimes; in which case, that will force us to take countermeasures that we don't want to take. Actually, what we want to do...

RAZ: Countermeasures, what do you mean?

OREN: Well, the Palestinian Authority - President Abbas has now claimed he is the president of a state that includes the Gaza Strip. And the Gaza Strip is an organization called Hamas that has fired thousands of rockets against millions of Israeli citizens. Now, that is a war crime by any definition. And we could take him to an international court and accuse him of war crimes too.

We don't want to do that. We want to negotiate with him. And if he declares his state and it's a symbolic measure, if he keeps it as a symbolic measure and sits down and negotiate with us, he'll find us to be a ready and eager partner and very anxious to reach this two-state solution.

RAZ: You say this just as news has come out this week of several thousand more housing units to be developed in the West Bank territory that the Palestinians see as their future state. So I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. They have seen these settlements expand and expand and expand throughout this peace process, or so-called peace process, for the past 20 years, and it hasn't really changed. I mean, they don't have what they have sought. What other options do they have at this point? I mean, what else can a Palestinian leader do?

OREN: The settlements altogether take up something less than 2 percent of the entire West Bank. But settlements are part of the border issue, the part of the territorial issues. Those are one of what we call the core issues that have to be discussed at the negotiating table. But...

RAZ: And if they keep on expanding during these non-discussions, doesn't it make it harder to dismantle them?

OREN: We understand that the Palestinians don't like settlement expansion. We get it. But there are many things the Palestinians do that we don't like. They name town squares after suicide bombers. They instruct their kids...

RAZ: But that's easier to change than a settlement.

OREN: But they haven't changed it. And it's educating a young generation that Israel has no legitimacy, that terror is the way to approach Israel, rather than peace negotiations. It's a serious problem. We don't make it a precondition. We say, come, all right, let's talk about it. Let's sit at the table. We don't like some of the things you do. We understand that you don't like some of the things we do.

That's the nature of negotiations. We are willing to discuss everything. Everything's on the table, and just join us. The last four years, they've been refusing to join us. You ask what the Palestinians can do - they can negotiate.

RAZ: But what incentive do they have, Ambassador, I mean, if the settlement expansion is so problematic to them and many countries in the international community would argue it's a violation of international law, why would they negotiate under those circumstances?

OREN: We froze settlement negotiations, settlement expansions, for 10 months in an attempt to induce the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table. They did not avail themselves at that time. So even when we freeze settlements, they're not negotiating. They may not be negotiating for many reasons, perhaps related to some of the changes going on in the Middle East.

But we strongly believe that the only way for the Palestinians to change the reality on the ground, to actually have a real Palestinian state, not a virtual Palestinian state, the great way to respond to Hamas, to terror, which cannot give the Palestinians any future other than continued strife, which is not investing in education, which is not investing in infrastructure, the only way to do that is through genuine peace. And the only way to reach genuine peace is through direct and candid negotiations.

RAZ: That's Michael Oren. He's Israel's ambassador to the United States. He joined me here in the studio. Ambassador, thank you.

OREN: Thank you, Guy. Good to be with you.

RAZ: As I mentioned earlier, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are here in Washington this weekend as part of the Saban Center's Forum on U.S.-Israel relations. Earlier today, we reached former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This past week, he said Israel shouldn't have worked so hard to defeat that U.N. resolution.

EHUD OLMERT: I didn't see any reason to oppose it. Look, the fundamental interest - long-range strategic interest of state of Israel - is that we will have the international bodies, and primarily the United Nations recognize the two-state solution so that there will never be any doubt as to the right of Israel to have its own Jewish independent state. Now, the fact that the Palestinians brought a proposal that they will be recognized as a state in creation, not even as a full member of the United Nations, but this emphasize again the two-state solution is in line with the basic interest of the state of Israel.

Of course, it requires negotiations afterward. But I didn't see that this particular proposition that was adopted by the U.N. is in contradiction to the basic interest of the state of Israel. And why should we isolate ourselves from the entire international community and have a vote in the United Nation where 139 nations vote against us? What was so smart in this? I don't understand.

RAZ: There is much speculation, Prime Minister Olmert, that a hard-line Israeli government will be elected in January again with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the helm. Do you believe that might be an obstacle to any near-term progress?

OLMERT: I definitely have to be hopeful that things have changed both in the politics of Israel and in the policies of Israel. But on the other hand, you know, one can look back at the last four years and say to himself that four years, we didn't do anything that would encourage the resumption of serious, meaningful peace process, so why do we have to expect that something will change?

RAZ: And if it doesn't? Is time running out?

OLMERT: Time is certainly running out for Israel. There is no question about it. I'm very, very concerned about it because I think that if the world will not see a major progress in the dialogue between us and the Palestinians, then more and more people in the Palestinian community and in the international community will resort to the one-state for two-people solution. That which will change entirely the nature of the state of Israel, and I'm not sure that this is what we were dreaming all our history for.

RAZ: Finally, you left politics to fight charges of corruption, which you fended off. Now that you have been cleared, is there a likelihood we will see Ehud Olmert back in politics in the future?

OLMERT: I think it's a fantastic question. Thank you very much, Guy. One day, it will be answered soon.

RAZ: One day soon. OK.

OLMERT: All right.

RAZ: That's former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Ehud Olmert, thank you.

OLMERT: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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