Palestine becomes member of UNESCO, US cuts funds

November 1, 2011 - 8:05 AM
APTOPIX France UNESCO Palestinians

Permanent delegate of the US to UNESCO David Killion, center, reacts as delegates vote on the Palestinian membership, during a session of UNESCO's 36th General Conference, in Paris, Monday Oct. 31, 2011. Palestine became a full member of the U.N. cultural and educational agency Monday, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS (AP) — Palestine won its greatest international endorsement yet on Monday, full membership in UNESCO, but the move will cost the agency one-fifth of its funding and some fear will send Mideast peace efforts off a cliff.

In an unusually dramatic session at the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, there were cheers for "yes" votes and grumbles for the "no's" and abstentions. When the results were in, many delegates jumped to their feet and applauded and someone let out a cry of "Long live Palestine!" in French.

"Joy fills my heart. This is really a historic moment," said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki. "It's the return of he who was banished."

But the jubilation was quickly pierced by reality: The United States said it wouldn't make a $60 million payment to fill out its contributions for this year and would suspend all future funding.

UNESCO depends heavily on that money — Washington provides 22 percent of its budget — but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under President George W. Bush.

Monday's vote was a grand symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it alone won't make Palestine a state. The issues of borders for an eventual Palestinian state, security, a solution for Palestinian refugees, the fate of Jerusalem and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved. Some argued it would even make it harder for the Palestinians to reach their goal.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called UNESCO's decision "premature" and said it undermines the international community's efforts toward a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. He called it a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan said the decision did "a great disservice to international law and to chances for peace."

"UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction," he said in a speech to delegates after the vote. "However, a large number of member states, though most emphatically less than two-thirds of the member states of this organization, have adopted a science fiction version of reality."

His government said it was reconsidering its cooperation with UNESCO.

The request to grant Palestine full membership passed 107-14, with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval — or two-thirds of the 173 eligible member delegations present. There are now 195 members in all.

In a surprise, France voted "yes" — and the room erupted in cheers. They were joined by Ireland, Austria and the Arab states. The "no" votes included the United States, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, while many American allies abstained, including Japan, Britain and New Zealand.

Monday's vote is definitive, and the membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.

It is part of a broader Palestinian quest for greater international recognition in hopes of moving closer to statehood through channels other than simply negotiations with Israel.

There, however, are concerns that strategy could backfire. Before the vote, Israel's outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that if the measure passed, Israel should cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority. It was not clear whether he was voicing government policy.

By contrast, Malki said he hoped the vote would only provide momentum for the Palestinians' quest for statehood. But he added that it was no substitute for the Palestinians' more high-profile request for admission to the United Nations.

The Obama administration has vowed to use its veto power in the Security Council to quash Palestinian membership in the broader U.N., but had been hoping it wouldn't come to that since wielding its veto could undermine the United States' typically pivotal role as negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, indicated Monday that he thought he had enough support to win a Security Council vote, which has not yet been scheduled.

UNESCO, like many U.N. agencies, is a part of the world body but has separate membership procedures and can make its own decisions about which countries belong. The disconnect between memberships is rare but not unprecedented. Two tiny Pacific island nations — the Cook Islands and Niue — are members of UNESCO but not the U.N., while Liechtenstein belongs to the larger world body but not the cultural agency.

Even if the vote's impact isn't felt right away in the Mideast, it will be quickly felt at UNESCO, which protects historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy, access to schooling for girls and cultural understanding. One of the first concrete results of Palestine's membership could be that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is listed as a world heritage site; the Palestinians have already prepared an application for the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

In addition to the reduction in funding, the vote will also set back UNESCO's efforts in recent years to shed its image as an anti-Israeli agency. When the U.S. pulled out of UNESCO in the 1980s, it was to protest the passage of a resolution equating Zionism with racism.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has been at the forefront of remaking the agency's image, and she expressed concern about the vote's effect.

"It is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the organization," Bokova said. "I am worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I am worried for the stability of its budget."

While the U.S. has cut off funding — which typically amounts to $80 million annually — Washington has said it will remain a member, though if it fails to pay its dues for two years, it will lose its vote.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was up to member states "to ensure the United Nations system as a whole consistent political and financial support."

"As such, we will need to work on tactical solutions to preserve UNESCO's financial resources," he said, while urging a negotiated solution to Mideast peace.

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Klapper reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, Edith Lederer at the United Nations and Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed.