PA takes first step toward acceptance in UNESCO

Israel blasts move; US congresswoman threatens to cut UNESCO funding if PA is accepted; US veto will make acceptance difficult.

UNESCO logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of UNESCO)
UNESCO logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of UNESCO)
The Palestinians are unlikely, because of the US veto on the Security Council, to gain full admittance as a state in the UN, yet at least one of its agencies – the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – took a step on Wednesday toward granting the Palestinians full membership.
Forty representatives of the 58-member UNESCO board voted in favor of letting the 193 member states vote on whether to admit the Palestinians as a member later this month at the Paris-based organization’s General Conference that runs from October 25 to November 10. The US, Germany, Latvia and Romania voted against, and 14 countries abstained.
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The Foreign Ministry issued a response condemning the move, saying that “the correct and only way to progress the peace process with the Palestinians is through direct, unconditional negotiations.”
“The Palestinians’ actions at UNESCO negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet’s proposal for continuing the diplomatic process,” the statement said. “Their actions are a negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process.”
The statement said UNESCO’s responsibilities are to address culture, science and education.
“UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East yet has found time during its current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the statement said.
“The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever.”
The statement thanked those countries who voted against. The 14 countries that abstained were France, Greece, Spain, Italy, Japan, Poland, Monaco, St. Lucia, Barbados, Slovakia, Korea, The Ivory Coast, Belgium and Denmark.
Significantly, all European countries on the executive board – with the exception of Russia and Belarus – either voted against the measure or abstained.
The PA’s move at UNESCO is an attempt to ramp up pressure on the UN by looking for alternative institutions that may recognize their sought-after statehood status.
On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, the EU’s main human rights body.
The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. To gain full membership, so-called “states” that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Conference. It was not clear whether “Palestine” would need to be a recognized state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.
This was not the first time the Palestinians have applied for membership to UNESCO, and to other UN organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the World Tourism Organization.
After the PLO declared statehood in the late 1988, the Palestinians applied to those three organizations for membership. Those bids failed, however, when then-US secretary of state James Baker issued a statement saying he would recommend to then-president George H.W. Bush to cut off all contributions to any UN agency that upgraded the status of the PLO.
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So far the PA’s move at UNESCO has not triggered any similar threat from the Obama administration, though it has sparked anger in Congress, with the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), calling for a cutoff of US funding to UNESCO if the Palestinian request is approved.
“Feeling that their efforts at the UN Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the UN system for recognition,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“This attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the UN, and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme.”
France, which has urged the United Nations to grant the Palestinians the status of observer state – like the Vatican – in the General Assembly, said UNESCO was not the right forum to seek recognition.
“The priority is to revive negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. “We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment.”