Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
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
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,
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
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
organizations, other than the UN. Such organizations could include the
International Civil Aviation Organization, the International
Union and possibly the International Criminal Court.
This may give the
Palestinians a sense of national satisfaction, but it won’t help solve
Israeli-Palestinian dispute.Robbie Sabel is a professor of
at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former legal adviser of
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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