Israelis, Palestinians React To Obama Plan

President Obama stirred passions on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. Guy Raz talks with Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's envoy in Washington; Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel; and Jerusalem Post editor in chief David Horovitz about reaction to the speech.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, that's certainly the case in Israel, where President Obama is widely viewed with suspicion. Still, many top Israeli policymakers, including the leading opposition figure, Tzipi Livni, welcomed the president's speech on Thursday.

But David Horovitz, the editor of the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Post, says it's not necessarily the content of what the president said but the tone.

Mr. DAVID HOROVITZ (Editor, Jerusalem Post): I think that the president's speech will have exacerbated the Israeli sense that the president doesn't get it, hasn't internalized the gravity of the threats facing Israel, hasn't internalized the refusal of so much of the Palestinian public and leadership and the wide Arab world to acknowledge that the Jews have historic rights in this part of the world and therefore, to move towards viable compromise with Israel.

RAZ: There are two primary issues that make Israelis nervous at the moment. The first was a decision by the moderate Palestinian faction Fatah to enter into a coalition government with the Islamist faction, Hamas. Hamas is still officially committed to Israel's destruction.

The other one is that sometime this fall, the Palestinian leadership will ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an independent state. Israel and the U.S. oppose it. But the plan is gaining international momentum, and it's one of the reasons why President Obama says time is running out for the two sides to move to the negotiating table.

But according to Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, that sense of urgency is something the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not share.

Mr. DANIEL KURTZER (Former United States Ambassador to Israel): Clearly the two of them did not have a meeting of the minds when they got together on Friday. I think what the prime minister was trying to do was to put out publicly, both for his own constituency at home but also for the AIPAC constituency in Washington and the Congress, which he is going to address, that there are certain immutable aspects of his position and that he has not changed his position even after talking to the president.

RAZ: Would you character U.S.-Israeli relations right now as being at a low point?

Mr. KURTZER: You know, there's two different ways to characterize it. The relations between the two countries are actually quite good. More aid has been given to Israel for its security in the last couple of years than in years before that.

We provided some substantial new assistance to try to develop an anti-rocket system to protect Israel's population in the south. So the institutional and kind of contextual side of our relations are really quite good.

Where there is a problem is at the top. The president and the prime minister do not see eye to eye. Their meeting this week has indicated that. The tonality of the exchanges has indicated that. And that's where the problem is.

So far, there is no crisis, however, in the core relations between our two countries.

RAZ: How much leverage would the Obama administration have in pushing the idea of borders based on 1967? I mean, could it actually force this issue?

Mr. KURTZER: Well, you know, what's interesting, Guy, is that right now there is no Palestinian partner. So a lot of this is an academic debate. Palestinians, at least up until now, seem absorbed by the idea of achieving reconciliation at home and preparing for a unilateral declaration of statehood.

The real crunch point will come if the Palestinians decide that they can, in fact, resume negotiations, set aside the idea of going to the United Nations in September and then, essentially, put the question to the Israelis: Do you want to negotiate or do you not want to negotiate?

And there is going to be, at that point, a different debate in Israel as to whether or not the prime minister could simply walk away. Right now, he's got a fairly easy time of saying, I don't like the president's views and look at my partners, they're not at the table.

The real crunch point, though, will be if a partner is waiting at the table with the president of the United States standing on the sidelines, and the prime minister has to choose whether he wants to show up at negotiations or not.

RAZ: That's Daniel Kurtzer. He was the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. He spoke to us from Princeton University, where he is now a professor of Middle East policy studies. Dan Kurtzer, thank you.

Mr. KURTZER: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Before the Six-day War of 1967, Israel's de-facto Eastern border was along an armistice line from 1949, the so-called Green Line. That line is more or less the border that Palestinians hope to make permanent in any final peace deal.

But in the four decades since Israel occupied land beyond that Green Line, nearly half-a-million Israelis have settled in that territory. Whole Israeli cities have sprung up in the West Bank, and Israel says it would unrealistic to move them out.

But Palestinians say that doesn't matter. They insist those settlements are illegal, and so dismantling those settlement cities will almost certainly have to happen, they say.

Here's Maen Rashid Areikat. He is the chief Palestinian representative to Washington.

Mr. MAEN RASHID AREIKAT (Palestinian Liberation Organization Envoy in Washington): The Palestinian position has always been that we need to know what the borders of a future Palestinian state. We cannot negotiate about the establishment of a Palestinian state if we don't know the borders. And this is something that Israel has been trying to avoid.

RAZ: When you talk about borders, is there a sense of what might be acceptable, what is in the realm of possibility from the Palestinian perspective? I mean, could you envision Israel holding on to some of those large settlements that are currently in the occupied territory?

Mr. AREIKAT: Our position is very clear on borders. We said 1967 lines with minor modifications. We absolutely are not envisioning the land swap that the Israelis have been proposing - the five, six percent. We are talking about as little, as minor as possible of a land swap to accommodate certain interests and changes. But we are not envisioning a large land swap.

RAZ: I'm curious to get a sense of what you make of the president's tone. Is this president seen as somebody who is perhaps friendlier to Palestinians than his predecessor or previous presidents?

Mr. AREIKAT: I believe that the president has shown from day one his genuine, sincere commitment to advance the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians by picking a special envoy who unfortunately resigned a week ago.

And he continues, despite all the difficult challenges this his administration has faced, he continues to be committed to pursuing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So we are encouraged. We appreciate the effort of the president and the administration, and we hope that it will lead to something soon.

RAZ: The president said that negotiations have to happen between the two parties. But it is your view that that can't really happen without the United States pushing the two parties to the table? Can it happen without U.S. involvement?

Mr. AREIKAT: I think any agreement has to be accepted by both parties. It has to be a bilateral agreement.

RAZ: But even getting to the table?

Mr. AREIKAT: Getting to the table, definitely we're going to need the United States. We're going to need the international community. We're going to need many other players to bridge the gaps, facilitate the return of the two parties...

RAZ: Because if you just leave them aside, you're saying, the Palestinians and the Israelis, they'll just, they'll never go to the table?

Mr. AREIKAT: It's because of the inequality. I mean, the two parties are not equal. You know, you have an occupying power, and you're having an occupied people.

RAZ: Tell me about the Palestinian plan to go to the United Nations this fall to seek recognition for a state. The U.S. opposes this. Israel obviously opposes it. Walk me through the Palestinian thinking on this. Is it that we have nothing to lose and we might as well do it?

Mr. AREIKAT: No, it's not that. I think you just heard the president at AIPAC saying that the Palestinians' inclination to go to the United Nations is because of their impatience, frustration that the bilateral tract, the so-called peace process, did not produce the end of the Israeli military occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian leadership is responsible for its people. They have to deliver an end to the occupation. It is not the only option for us. We have said that repeatedly. The political process remains to be our first option, but you have to put that in a context that will succeed.

RAZ: That's Maen Rashid Areikat. He is the Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to Washington. He joined me here in the studio. Ambassador Areikat, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. AREIKAT: Thank you very much.

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