Palestine in Unesco

Nov 01 2011

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THE Palestinians' full membership of Unesco constitutes a major political success for them and a bold decision on the part of the UN cultural organisation. It forms part of a larger Palestinian push towards international recognition for Palestine as a nation-state. In an emotion-charged session at Unesco's Paris headquarters on Monday, 107 states voted in favour of Palestine's admission as against 14 nays, with 52 abstentions. The vote could pave the way for the Palestinian Authority's admission to the world body's other specialised agencies, though, as PA Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Malki said, the Unesco vote would erase only “a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people”. The UN body's membership will also enable the PA to ask Unesco to give world heritage status to Islamic and Christian holy sites in the occupied territories. More important, Monday's crucial decision is a moral victory for the Palestinians ahead of the Security Council's vote on the PA's application for full UN membership this month.

While Israel called the Unesco vote a “unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre” which will have no impact on ground realities, America announced it was cancelling all funding to Unesco. Calling the membership “premature”, the White House agreed with the Israeli foreign ministry's claim that Unesco's decision undermined the peace process. The US was to make a payment of $60m to Unesco this month, but that money will not be forthcoming because an American law forbids funding for any UN body that admits Palestine as a full member. This is not the first time that America is at odds with Unesco. During the Cold War, Washington remained hostile to Unesco for nearly two decades, because it believed the UN agency was pursuing aims that conflicted with its foreign policy goals. Even though the State Department said the administration would consult congressional leaders on this issue, it remains highly doubtful that the pro-Israel Congress will make the relevant law flexible to resume funding for the UN's cultural body.

It is not clear in what way Palestine's Unesco membership undermines what the White House said was “the international community's shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. America is opposed to the PA's full membership of the UN because it upholds the Israeli position that the two sides should have “direct talks”. However, even a cursory look at the history of the Middle East conflict over the last two decades shows that direct talks between the two sides have served to prolong the status quo and helped Israel build more settlements to alter the occupied territories' demographic character.