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The World

Nov 1, 2011

UNESCO welcomes the Palestinians -- at a price

After losing some of the limelight in the past fortnight due to the Israel-Hamas deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, the "official" Palestinian leadership of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas bounced back yesterday.

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After losing some of the limelight in the past fortnight due to the Israel-Hamas deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, the “official” Palestinian leadership of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas bounced back yesterday. In a boost to the campaign for UN membership, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) voted to admit Palestine as its 195th member.

Unlike UN membership itself, UNESCO membership doesn’t require a security council recommendation and therefore isn’t subject to a veto.

It required a two-thirds majority of those present and voting, and got it easily: 107 in favour to 14 against, with the rest abstaining or not voting.

The 14 dissenters included Israel and the United States, plus several the latter’s closest allies — including Australia. Five EU members voted against (Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands and Sweden), but 11 supported membership (including France and Spain) and the other 11 abstained (including Italy, Poland and the UK). (I’m working off Wikipedia‘s list, which is consistent with news reports but more comprehensive.)

If those votes were repeated at the security council it would give the Palestinians the nine affirmative votes they need, forcing the US to use its veto to prevent a recommendation being made to the general assembly — where, as everyone concedes, it would be approved. But France at least has suggested that it will go the other way when UN membership itself is at issue.

This will be an expensive move for UNESCO, since the US immediately announced that it would mean an end to its funding contribution, which amounts to around 20% of UNESCO’s budget. A 1990 law forbids funding any agency “which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as member states”, and the Obama administration is clearly in no mood to try to interpret its way out of that. There has been no sign that Australia will follow suit.

But while it’s one thing to argue that Palestinian membership for UN agencies is counter-productive and a step backward in the peace process — a perfectly respectable argument, albeit one I disagree with — there’s something terribly lopsided about taking this one issue, above myriad other things UNESCO might do, to justify a funding cut.

The US has had troubles with UNESCO before. In 1984 it withdrew from the organisation, followed by the UK, over what it saw as its extreme left-wing stance, notably in relation to the so-called “New World Information and Communication Order“. But it rejoined in 2003, after internal reforms and changing ideological currents had rendered the dispute moot.

Compared to the issues at stake then, membership for Palestine looks trivial. (It is not, incidentally, the first non-UN-member to be admitted; the two New Zealand dependencies of the Cook Islands and Niue are also in UNESCO.) But for Likud and its supporters in the US, anything that confers legitimacy on the Palestinians is seen as an existential threat that has to be fought with everything at their disposal.

If UNESCO’s work suffers as a result, it will merely join the long list of worthy causes held hostage to the twists of America’s domestic politics.

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