US freezes UNESCO funds for recognizing Palestine

Washington won't make planned $60 million transfer for UN cultural agency, State Department says; 107 nations voted in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstained; FM: Israel should cut ties with PA.

36th session of UNESCO (photo credit: Reuters)
36th session of UNESCO
(photo credit: Reuters)
The United States on Monday froze funding to a United Nations educational body, after it became the first UN organization to recognize Palestine as an independent state.
In a dramatic move that inched the Palestinian Authority closer to its bid for unilateral statehood, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) accepted Palestine as the 195th member of its organization.
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A huge cheer erupted in UNESCO’s General Assembly in Paris as it gave the Palestinians a symbolic victory in their unilateral statehood battle after 107 nations voted in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstained. The US, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Israel voted against Palestinian membership. Countries such as Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa, Austria and France voted in favor. Britain and Italy abstained.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas thanked all the countries that supported its UNESCO membership bid.
“This vote is a vote for peace,” Abbas was quoted by the PA’s news agency, Wafa, as saying.
“The vote constitutes an international consensus to support the legitimate national rights of our people – first and foremost the right to establish an independent state.”
The vote is a “victory for Palestinian independence,” Abbas said. The entire world, he added, stood with the Palestinians today.
It also underscored the need to establish a Palestinian state as soon as possible, Abbas said.
“This vote is not directed against anyone,” he said. “It’s meant to support freedom and justice.”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said after the vote: “Today’s victory at UNESCO is the beginning of a road that is difficult, but will lead to the freedom of our land and people from occupation.
Palestine has the right to a place on the map.”
Israel, however, warned that the UNESCO vote harmed ongoing Quartet efforts to jump-start the peace talks, which have been stalled since October 2010.
“The Palestinian move at UNESCO, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement it issued to the press.
It threatened to cut its ties with UNESCO.
“The State of Israel will consider its further steps and ongoing cooperation with the organization,” the Ministry said.
At the Knesset, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sternly said Israel should consider cutting all ties to the PA.
“My recommendations will be very clear,” the foreign minister explained at an Israel Beiteinu faction meeting. “We need to weigh cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority.
We cannot continue to accept unilateral measures time after time.”
The Palestinian application for UNESCO is part of its overall strategy to unilaterally obtain statehood by seeking UN membership both by appealing to the Security Council, which approves all such bids, and by separately asking to join UN bodies such as UNESCO and other international organizations.
The Security Council is expected to vote on the issue of Palestinian UN membership later this month.
In a statement issued in Ramallah, the PLO Executive Committee said it hoped the vote would pave the way for the Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state “on all the territories that were occupied in 1967.”
The US and Israel have opposed all such unilateral bids and have argued that statehood should be achieved through a negotiated peace deal with Israel. Israel has argued that Palestinians are seeking unilateral statehood as a way to avoid a negotiated peace.
The US has promised to veto the Palestinians membership bid at the UN Security Council.
On Monday after the UNESCO vote, White House spokesman Jay Carney complained that the move “distracts us from our shared goal of direct negotiations that result in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the UNESCO vote was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
“The United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, but such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” continued Nuland.
She condemned the vote as “creating tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table.”
Nuland said that as a result of the vote, the US would not make a $60 million payment to UNESCO scheduled for later in the month.
There is a congressional resolution that forbids the US from financing UN-related organizations that recognize any unilaterally- declared Palestinian state without a peace deal.
Washington will not, however, stop its participation in UNESCO, a membership that had already been suspended once by former US president Ronald Reagan.
The PA called on Arab countries to compensate UNESCO for the loss of American financial aid in the wake of the vote.
Muhammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, also expressed hope that the Arab countries that supported the Palestinian move at UNESCO would step in to help the international agency financially.
The PLO Executive Committee hailed the UNESCO vote, dubbing it an “historic event.”
PA negotiator Nabil Sha’ath called the vote a “victory for Palestinian rights and proof of the international community’s recognition of our people’s right to an independent state.”
Sha’ath said the vote would be added to a series of “political victories achieved by the Palestinian leadership.” He said the vote highlighted the size of the crisis facing the Israeli government.
Hamas also welcomed Monday’s vote, saying it was an “important step toward serving the Palestinian cause and preserving Palestinian heritage and holy sites in the face of Israeli violations.”
Hamas said the vote also “exposed the brutality of the occupation and the bias of the US administration in favor of the occupation and its racist policies.”
Reuters contributed to this report.