By Samuel Burke, CNN
A year after failing to win recognition as an independent state, the Palestinian Authority came back to the United Nations and won the vote for an upgraded status as a non-voting member state in the General Assembly Thursday.
The governments of the United States and Israel both stood firmly against the Palestinian Authority’s move at the United Nations, which passed with an overwhelming majority. Surprisingly, though, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threw his full support behind the move.
“What the Palestinians moved to do today in the U.N., I think is in basic line with the strategy of a two state solution,” Olmert told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
Four years ago, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which governs the West Bank, turned down a peace deal that Olmert formulated, which he said “could have resolved the entire issue.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told Amanpour, “I’ve never seen Palestinians and Israelis closer to striking an historic deal than that day in November 2008 between President Abbas and Mr. Olmert. So I’m not surprised that Mr. Olmert would support this bid.”
There are some aspects of Thursday’s move, however, that give Olmert cause for concern. With their new status as an observer state, the Palestinians could go to the International Criminal Court to push for charges against Israel. Olmert believes that a Palestinian petition to the ICC “could aggravate the situation, rather than change the atmosphere and the tensions” in the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Erakat has been at the center of negotiations with Israel for decades and said that the road ahead for the Palestinians is still difficult, but he believes this is a momentous vote. “As a Palestinian today I felt 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 think today was a good beginning.”
The peace process is completely stalled at the moment, but Olmert said Israel must move rapidly for a two-state solution. “Time is running out for Israel more than for the Palestinians,” he said.
Olmert said he opposes calls from some members of the United States Congress to now cut off funding for the Palestinians Authority, worrying that it might further shift Palestinian support to their opponents, Hamas, which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist group. After the most recent violence between Israel and Hamas, many analysts perceive that Hamas now has an elevated status, particularly among Palestinians in Gaza.
According to Olmert, the Palestinian Authority is the only partner Israel has for a peace deal. “Doctor Mahmoud Abbas is against terror – these are the guys we need to strengthen,” Olmert said. “We have to help them. What happened in the last few years – the reluctance for dialogue caused a certain reduction, an erosion in the status of the Palestinian Authority… [they] are the only partners we have for peace.”
The change in Palestinian status could give the Palestinian Authority and Abbas a boost in popularity. Erakat said, “I hope the day after tomorrow we will begin serious reconciliation between us and Hamas, hoping that Hamas will accept that when we have differences, we go to ballot boxes, not bullet boxes.”
Amanpour asked Olmert if he intends to run for Prime Minister in the Israeli elections in January. Olmert said he would only make an announcement on Israeli soil, but did say, “I will be very much involved in the attempt to change the policy of Israel toward a much more forthcoming, creative and flexible policy that will help bring peace between us and the Palestinians.”