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, former Prime Minister 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 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?" 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."