Palestine and UNESCO

UNESCO has proven itself to be among the most polemic-prone specialized UN agencies.

By ROBBIE SABEL
November 16, 2011 18:04
4 minute read.
Palestinian diplomats at UNESCO

Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)

 
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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) may not be one of the most important of international organizations but it has again proved itself to be among the most polemic-prone of the specialized agencies of the UN.

In the 1970s, at the instigation of Muslim and Third World States, UNESCO passed resolutions aimed at restricting the freedom of the press. These resolutions and other anti-Western resolutions of the organization, together with the corruption and profligate behavior of the UNESCO executives at the time, led the United States to withdraw from the organization in 1984. The US only rejoined the organization in 2003.

The organization also has a long tradition of adopting resolutions hostile to Israel. In 1974, in response to claims that Israeli archaeology digs were harming the Old City of Jerusalem, UNESCO excluded Israel from any regional activity and cut off all cooperation with it.

The organization has denied the Israeli attempt to register the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem as World Heritage sites and has registered them solely as Muslim mosques. Recently, UNESCO condemned Israeli plans to rebuild the bridge into the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, notwithstanding that the present temporary wooden bridge has been condemned as a dangerous structure.

Yet UNESCO remains a minor UN organization with little political importance and the question needs to be asked whether Israel and the US are taking excessive steps in their reaction to UNESCO’s accepting Palestine as a state member.

The Palestinians – or at least the PLO and Fatah – argue that they have abandoned the use of terror in their dispute with Israel and are now solely employing diplomatic measures to achieve their national goals. One of these measures, according to the Palestinian position, includes the attempt to obtain international support for their claim to statehood. They have been thwarted in the UN by the US threat of veto; they are therefore beginning a campaign for membership in international organizations where there is no power of veto.

The Palestinians hope that once they obtain membership in a large number of international organizations, they will in fact acquire full international recognition of their status as a state, even if they continue to be denied membership in the UN itself. A state, of course, can be a full member of the world community of states, even if it is not a member of the UN; Switzerland, for example, only joined the UN in 2002. The Palestinians claim that, once recognized as a state, they will be in a better position to negotiate with Israel, on a basis of equality and not as a people under occupation negotiating with their occupiers.

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Israel is wary that the step taken by UNESCO will lead to the recognition of Palestine as an independent state by other international organizations. Israel is concerned that such recognition is, at this stage, a fiction and undermines the real need to negotiate the substantive elements of Palestinian statehood. Such issues include the borders of a Palestinian state, Israeli and Palestinian mutual recognition of national claims, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees and a declaration of the end of the conflict.

The borders of a Palestinian state can, in accordance with international law, only be decided by agreement with its neighbor state, Israel. Premature international recognition, such as the step taken by UNESCO is, in the eyes of Israel policy makers, counterproductive to the peace process and serves as a disincentive to negotiations. Israel suspects that if the Palestinians believe they can achieve their goals by majority votes at international organizations, they will be happy to avoid the prospect of having to directly negotiate with their difficult negotiating partner, Israel.

The US reaction to UNESCO’s acceptance of Palestine by cutting off its contribution to the organization (some $60 million of UNESCO’s two-year $653 million budget). This reaction was dictated by mandatory Congressional law and it is extremely doubtful if the State Department and White House would have taken such a step on their own. There does not appear to be any move by the US to follow Ronald Reagan’s precedent of withdrawing from the organization.

Israel has also suspended its financial contribution but likewise refrained from threatening to leave UNESCO. Even when, in 1974, the US withdrew from the organization, Israel retained its membership. However nasty UNESCO may be, it is better to be inside the organization rather than outside, according to Israeli logic.

A further serious consideration, of course, is that if Israel should later reconsider its position and wish to rejoin UNESCO, it might find that this is more difficult than it was for the US, which was welcomed back with open arms.


If Israel’s apprehensions prove to be founded, Palestine will be accepted as a full state member of most international organizations, other than the UN. Such organizations could include the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union and possibly the International Criminal Court.

This may give the Palestinians a sense of national satisfaction, but it won’t help solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Robbie Sabel is a professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former legal adviser of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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