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UN to Vote on Observer Status for Palestinians

Aired November 29, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. And my focus tonight, the seemingly eternal struggle for a Palestinian state that can coexist with Israel.

It was exactly 65 years ago today, November 29th, 1947, that the United Nations voted to divide a country that was then called Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. The same United Nations that's now giving Palestinians one small step toward statehood of their own.

You're looking at the U.N. General Assembly now, where right now, members are getting ready to vote to upgrade the status to a non-member observer state. It means the Palestinian Authority will hold the same status as the Vatican does. It'll be able to participate in general assembly debate and to join other U.N. agencies. And that is one of the biggest problems for Israel.

Israelis fear that the Palestinians might seek to redress at the International Criminal Court for things such as settlement activity.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Israel and the U.S. are, therefore, bitterly opposed to the U.N. bid, and the Obama administration has tried to stop it.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York, because no matter what happens at the United Nations, it will not produce the outcome that this government, this president and certainly I strongly support.


AMANPOUR: But there have been no peace process for years, and as one observer said, the future Palestinian state that once seemed inevitable now seems to exist mainly in the lullabyes of Western peace negotiators.

Highlighting the U.S. isolation on this issue, major European allies, like France, Spain and Italy are voting in favor of the Palestinians, while Britain and Germany are abstaining. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations is calling this vote, quote, "a prize for terror," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it will only delay Palestinian statehood.

But an unlikely defender of this Palestinian bid has emerged. He's the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who also went to war against Palestinians in Gaza, but who now says that he sees no reason to oppose the bid at the U.N. for recognition and he'll join me in a moment.

Later in the program, we'll also have the other side of the story.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): The Palestinian perspective: will a seat at the international table bring them closer to peace with Israel?

And imagine if the U.N. vote that led to the Jewish state had gone the other way. It almost happened.



AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, joins me right now in the studio.

Welcome to our studio.


AMANPOUR: You caused a bit of a stir by saying that you support this bid, because it's not what most Israeli politicians and leaders are saying right now.

OLMERT: Well, perhaps. Maybe.

AMANPOUR: Why do you?

OLMERT: But I've steered the political scene four years ago, when I proposed on behalf of the state of Israel and the Israeli government a peace plan to the Palestinians, which I thought, at that time, could have resolved the entire issue.

So regrettably, unfortunately, at that time, Palestinians did not say yes to this plan. But the basic approach of Israel on all the Israeli governments for many years, until 2009, when Netanyahu took over, was that we endorsed a two-state solution.


AMANPOUR: But of course --

OLMERT: And therefore, what the Palestinians moved today in the United Nations, I think, is in basic line with the strategy of a two-state solution.

And therefore --

AMANPOUR: So how do you answer, then, for instance, the United States, Israel's best friend, which says that, yes, we all agree with the two-state solution, but not unilateral moves and it must happen through final status, you know, peace process and an agreement between both sides.

OLMERT: Well, definitely there must be some concerns about this move. It's not a simple thing because, as you have said earlier, it can give the Palestinians a power to take certain initiatives against Israel, which can be a source of concern and which can aggravate a situation rather than --

AMANPOUR: Helping it.

OLMERT: -- change it and change the atmosphere and the tension.

So I guess that the United States government is also concerned about it. And since the United States is a good friend of Israel and Barack Obama, president of America, is a very good friend of the state of Israel, I think that he wants to express the concerns that they share with the Israeli government.

But in principle, I think the direction of this move is the right direction. We have to move rapidly for a two-state solution or we have to engage immediately in a dialogue. That's what I was doing with Abu Mazen for a couple of years.

And I think that Israel and the Palestinians and it's incumbent upon us, just as it is incumbent upon them, we have to engage in a serious dialogue that will implement this basic approach, which will be approved today by the U.S.

AMANPOUR: So how do you react, then, to your own ambassador to the Israeli government ambassador to the U.N. saying that this is a prize for terror?

OLMERT: I think here what the ambassador --

AMANPOUR: I'll tell you what he said.

OLMERT: -- yes and -- but I understand that you quote him and I don't agree that this step is dangerous. I think that this is a step that will lead to the actual implementation of the strategy of Israel and the international community of a two-state solution.


OLMERT: It's important for Israel, no less than the Palestinians.

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that this would just delay the eventual statehood.

OLMERT: Well, you know, I don't argue with my prime minister when I'm overseas, but I can say that my policy has been and it's been very clear that Israel has to engage itself seriously, rapidly and consistently in a battle with the Palestinians in order to achieve a peace treaty.

This is very important for us. It's -- time is running out for Israel more than for the Palestinians and therefore I think that we should not delay anything. We shouldn't look at anything as an excuse to delay what I think is very, very urgent.

AMANPOUR: So if you were advising the Israeli prime minister and actually the Obama administration, where elements, for instance, of Congress and elsewhere -- and maybe you're going to Washington and you'll talk to Congress -- they're threatening in some quarters to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars of aid.

Is that a smart reaction? Is that something that could backfire?

OLMERT: Well, you know, I'm not sure that the prime minister of Israel would like me to be his adviser. Certainly I wouldn't presume that the president of America will want me to be his adviser --


AMANPOUR: But is it smart to punish the Palestinians by keeping aid from them?

OLMERT: I heard that the Qatar were giving $450 million to the Hamas recently in the visit of the emir of Qatar. And I say why do we have to punish those who want to make peace with Israel? Why do we have to punish those who stretch their hand and say they are against terror?

AMANPOUR: You mean the Palestinian Authority --

OLMERT: Mahmoud Abbas is against terror. He is the leader of the Palestinian Authority. Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, he is against terror. These are the guys that we need to strengthen. Therefore, I think that I can speak for my country. I don't want to say to America, well, America should do. I don't -- I'm not in that habit of telling America what it has to do.

AMANPOUR: No, but you can advice --

OLMERT: I can advise my own government that I think we could -- and we have to -- give the money that we hold to the Palestinian Authority. It needs to be strengthened. It's time that we will help Dr. Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and the Palestinian Authority. They are the only partners we have for peace.

And there will be peace, Christiane. I'm telling you, there will be peace. We need to want it; they need to want it. We need to work on it. I was very close with Dr. Abbas to really achieve peace. And I disagree entirely with all these rhetoric (ph) that says that because of these obstacles, because of these difficulties, there is never going to be peace.

It's going to happen and both sides will make all the necessary efforts. I think we have to do it. I think they have to do it. I think it's possible. So I'm optimistic. And I think that today's event is not that revolutionary. But if it expresses the desire of the international community for a solution that we say that we support, I see no reason why we should oppose it.

AMANPOUR: There seems to be a little, to me, anyway, as a reader of what's going on, a little bit of panic going on, that, oh, my goodness, we'd better give Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen something, because Hamas has emerged in many people's perception as quite elevated after the latest Gaza war.

Do you buy that? Do we need to save -- does -- do you? Does the United States need to save the Palestinian Authority by allowing this move?

OLMERT: Well, I perhaps wouldn't have used the same terms as you use, or the terms that some people use about the status of the Palestinian Authority. But we definitely have to support them. We have to help them.

What happened in the last few years is the reluctance for dialogue caused a certain reduction and erosion in the status of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority was weakened.

And I don't see any reason that any policy of the State of Israel or the friends of the State of Israel will ignore the need to support Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and the Palestinian Authority because they are the genuine partners that we -- we have no others. They are the ones and they need to be strengthened and certainly Hamas was not weakened as we expected them to be weakened.

AMANPOUR: Neither in your move, Operation Cast Lead, which I covered four years ago.

OLMERT: I think then they were very weakened for 21/2 years. They didn't shoot anything against Israel.

AMANPOUR: Why weren't they not weakened now and for another 21/2 years hang out?

OLMERT: Because there were, I think there was a different attitude of the Israeli government, first of all, for not supporting Abu Mazen. You should remember that when I was in charge of the Israeli policy, and some people disagreed with me, obviously, I first of all negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians to reach peace.

And I proposed them a peace plan which, according to the then former foreign minister of the state -- of the United States, it was shocking. She said that she couldn't believe her ears when she heard what I proposed to Abu Mazen, it was so far-reaching and forthcoming and so creative, according to her. So that was number one.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about Condoleezza Rice?

OLMERT: Condoleezza Rice. Number two is that we fought against the terrorists which are the enemies of Abu Mazen and Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad just as well. And they were weakened. They didn't shoot against Israel for a quite a time after Cast Lead operations. So it wasn't unsuccessful operation.

AMANPOUR: Let me move to January, where you're having an election in Israel. Will you run?

OLMERT: I say that I will make an announcement about it when I'm Israel, not overseas.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell me?

OLMERT: I could tell you privately to your ears, but not to the --

AMANPOUR: Does it begin with a Y or an N?


OLMERT: I will be very much involved in the attempt to change the policy of the Israel towards a much more forthcoming, creative and flexible policy that will help bring peace between us and the Palestinians is, I think, is the most important priority of the State of Israel. This is what we have to do and I will be very helpful in this direction.

AMANPOUR: Former prime minister, may be running for prime minister again, thank you very much for joining me.

OLMERT: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. We just heard the Israeli view -- former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- about the Palestinian bid at the United Nations. And of course, as we know, the Palestinians are asking for something that they rejected exactly 65 years ago: recognition alongside Israel.

Crowds of Palestinians took to the streets today in Ramallah on the West Bank to celebrate what they say is a historic day. In Israel, as we said, the prime minister says this move will backfire. Officials again raise concerns about Palestinians possibly pursuing Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Saeb Erekat is the chief Palestinian negotiator. He's been at the center of negotiations with Israel for decades, and I spoke to him just shortly ago from the United Nations.


Saeb Erekat, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: On this amazing historic day for the Palestinians, I just want to get your reaction to the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who tells me that he actually supports your bid for recognition.

EREKAT: I believe Prime Minister Olmert is a man who wanted to achieve the two-state solution. I think President Abbas and him came a long, long way.

I've seen it with my own eyes, Christiane, when Mr. Olmert handed President Abbas a map and then when a matter (ph) reciprocated with a map, Mr. Olmert's offer was to have swaps of 6.5 percent from the 1967 areas and Abu Mazen countered with an offer of 1.9 percent.

And I've never seen Palestinians and Israelis closer to striking a historic treaty and deal than that day in November 2008 between President Abbas and Mr. Olmert. So I'm not surprised that Mr. Olmert would come in support of this bid.

AMANPOUR: All right.

EREKAT: Because he knows that in the resolution that was what it says, two states to live side-by-side in peace and security.

AMANPOUR: Right. But you also know that the current Israeli government and the U.S. administration are desperately against this move.

What do you make of the fact that they've been lobbying so hard against it, most particularly let me ask you to react to a couple of reports, that actually the U.S. administration asked you yourself to come to Washington in these past couple of days to discuss this, to try to negotiate, to try to, I assume, get you to step down and not do this, or at least to put in provisions.

Tell me why they wanted you to come and why you refused.

EREKAT: Yes, they called me and they asked me to come to Washington and then we agreed that they come to New York and William Barrons (ph) and David Hale and Jonathan Schwartz, they came to New York and met President Abbas and myself; I was in that meeting.

And to be fair, Christiane, I think the American position in the past 24 months of this issue, they have been so consistent, one line, don't go to the U.N. It's not a good thing to go to the U.N. Now what they're telling us is that we're going to cripple President Obama's ability to move and as we answer that, I don't understand.

A resolution that create a state of Palestine to live side-by-side the state of Israel, in peace and security on '67 lines, that's asking to resume an accelerated negotiations in all core issues, we're not out here to confront the Americans or postulate (ph) Israel.

We're here because we have seen a derailment in the peace process in the past 3-4 years, and we're putting the peace process back on track by reminding the whole that it is a two-state solution in 1967. I don't understand the American contradiction (ph) and the threats coming from the Congress and the senators today.

And I don't understand the threats coming from Israel. If we refuse - - if they refuse to say two state and 1967, what is it that we have been negotiating for the past 20 (ph) years?

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you specific fears that the Israelis and obviously the Americans have had about this bid to get your status upgraded.

Number one, that you, Palestinians, might use that to go to the International Criminal Court and seek legal redress against Israel, charge them with war crimes or any kind of legal redress. And they've tried to get you to say that you won't put that in the bid or that you will agree not to do that. But you haven't done that. Why not?

EREKAT: Because we believe that instead of coming to us and asking us not to go here or there, they should stop those who commit crimes to stop committing crimes. Look, Christiane, you know the West Bank very well.

And you know what the Israeli settlers (ph) are doing in the West Bank now, burning trees (ph), mosques, churches, killing innocent people, destroying the two-state solution. And we urge the Americans and the Israeli government to stop these people from committing the crimes.

Now we are not out there, as I said, to isolate Israel or to delegitimize (ph) Israel or to confront the United States. We have a full intention, good intentions, positively to sit down and to see how we can frame a future negotiations in accordance with sets of not-to-do (ph) -- to-do issues with me as a Palestinian but also the Israelis and with the Americans and others.


EREKAT: And if --

AMANPOUR: -- you say you don't want -- you say that this is not a bid to threaten Israel, so just very, very, very clearly tell me, are you going to suddenly take Israel to the International Criminal Court?

EREKAT: Well, we want the Israelis to stop committing any crimes.

AMANPOUR: I know that. But what are you going to do?

EREKAT: And we will not -- we will not think about taking them to court. But we really need to tell the Israelis business cannot go as usual and the crimes cannot be continued against our people, and we do nothing about it.

Now I think the best opportunity for us now, instead of saying, going, not going, threatening and so on for them, I think what we should do is to try to sit down and frame the future steps in accordance with a framework of what to do, not to do on all sides.


EREKAT: And we're ready (ph) to do that.

AMANPOUR: Well, that was another condition or another sort of thing that, for instance, Britain wanted in order to support your bid. One of their demands was that you would agree to go back into negotiations with no preconditions.

Do you agree to do that?

EREKAT: We don't have conditions. See, the people here in the United States and Britain mixed between obligations and conditions. If you refer to settlement activities, the American road map specified that Israel must stop all settlement activities, including national (ph) growth. That's an Israeli obligation and not a Palestinian preconditions.

And how can we go to any negotiations if the Israelis would continue building and dictating on the land that's supposed to be the Palestinian state? We want an honest peace process. We want a credible peace process. We want to give a chance to a meaningful negotiation that would lead to the two-state solution.

These are the terms (inaudible) specified in the resolution that was (inaudible) today.

AMANPOUR: And finally, how much of this is a really desperate attempt now by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who sees so much of the public attention going to Hamas, going to Khaled Meshaal, going to the prime minister of Hamas in Gaza? How much does he fear being sidelined and, in fact, made irrelevant?

EREKAT: I don't accept this. And I don't accept the petty politics of Hamas (inaudible) Abu Mazen, Meshaal and so on. We're Palestinian in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian that was back in Israel some under Israeli occupation. We know that we have a division, we have a coup d'etat going on in Gaza.

And I hope after the day after tomorrow we'll begin serious reconciliation effort between us and Hamas, hoping that Hamas will accept that we will have differences; we got to ballot boxes and not to bullet boxes. The key to all reconciliation with Hamas is that they should accept presidential legislative general elections.

And that's the key. When we differ, we resort to ballots and not to bullets. And that's as far as who's up and who's down, we don't look at this. We're trying. As a Palestinian today, I felt, Christiane, that I was born for one thing, to bring Palestine back to the map and I think today was the very beginning. It's not the end. The road ahead of us is difficult, long, but I believe today was a good beginning.

AMANPOUR: Saeb Erekat, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

EREKAT: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And when we return, a look back at that other historic vote six decades ago when Israel and the Palestinians were separated at birth.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've been talking about that earlier United Nations vote throughout this program, 65 years ago that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel. But imagine if that vote had gone the other way, and it almost happened.

Just like today, the key players included the United States, Russia -- then the Soviet Union -- France and Great Britain, and many were expected to vote against the resolution.

But just before the vote was taken, the supporters of the Jewish cause staged a classic filibuster, even reading portions of the Bible aloud, anything to delay the vote. When the clock struck 7 pm, the session was adjourned, and that's when the furious lobbying began behind the scenes. And when the final vote was taken three days later, it was over in three minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The resolution was adopted by 33 votes, 13 against, 10 abstentions.


AMANPOUR: Jews, of course, were jubilant about the prospect of their new state. But the vote didn't lead to peace. Today, it's the Palestinians' turn to celebrate and we wonder whether this vote will revive the negotiations to bring about two states living side-by-side in peace.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.