Despite U.S. lobbying and last-minute appeals, the U.S. was joined only by Germany, Romania and Latvia in voting against the move at a meeting of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) executive board in Paris.
The measure passed 40-4, with 14 abstentions. Full details were not released, but Western democracies and other U.S. allies on the board include Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, Philippines, Poland, Slovakia, South Korea and Spain.
The recommendation to admit the Palestinian territories now moves to a final decision by UNESCO’s 193-member General Conference, which meets Oct. 25 to Nov. 10. A two-thirds majority vote is required.
Wednesday’s vote outcome – and especially the fact that the U.S. was able to win over so few member states – gives the clearest indication yet of the momentum behind Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ broader campaign for full U.N. membership. The U.N. Security Council is currently viewing that application.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday the U.S. would use the time between now and the General Conference vote “to make our case to the countries that will be making that decision that this is not the way to go.”
“If you care about the fate of Palestinians, if you want them to get a state, this is a diversion,” she said. “The energy ought to be going into – and every country ought to be pushing – for these parties to get back to the negotiating table.”
A UNESCO General Conference vote in favor of the Palestinian application would pose a dilemma for the Obama administration, which has strongly opposed Republican calls to cut back funding to the U.N. but would face increased pressure to do so in line with U.S. law.
“U.S. law requires that the United States withhold its ‘assessed and voluntary contributions’ if the Palestine Liberation Organization is given full membership in the U.N. or any specialized agency, such as UNESCO,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) noted in a statement Wednesday.
Granger chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee responsible for spending on diplomacy.
“Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations,” she said. “Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations.”
Granger warned that she would advocate for all funding to be cut off and “consider additional actions as needed.”
“There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a day earlier also warned about a funding cutoff to the U.N., saying that “this attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.”
Asked Wednesday whether the UNESCO vote triggered an automatic cut in contributions to the agency, Nuland said the administration was “currently looking at existing U.S. legislation on this point to determine how and whether it might apply.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, U.S. ambassador David Killion urged other board members to vote “no,” arguing that granting the Palestinian full membership in a specialized U.N. agency would be premature.
After reiterating the administration’s position on the importance of direct negotiations in achieving a “two-state” settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, he warned that UNESCO taking on a highly politicized issue could jeopardize its “ability to carry out its critical mandate,” which includes promoting education, literacy and freedom of expression.
Some UNESCO member states have already used the agency in recent years to take sides in disputes between the Palestinians and Israel, notably over sites with historical and religious significance.
Early last year, the Israeli government included the burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on a list of 150 national heritage sites, and triggered an uproar.
Although the Cave of the Patriarchs has an almost 4,000 year-old link to the origins of Judaism, its location in Hebron places it within the area claimed by Palestinians as part of a future state. Muslims also revere the biblical patriarchs as “Islamic prophets,” and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation demanded that the U.N. act against “this Israeli unilateral aggression.” (Abbas warned of a “religious war” and the State Department called the Israeli move “provocative.)
Eight months later the UNESCO board passed a resolution, by 44 votes to one (the U.S.) reaffirming that the site in Hebron was “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.”
Four other resolutions passed on the same day by overwhelming majorities sided with Palestinian and Arab positions against Israel.
The Palestinian Authority wants to submit the Cave of the Patriarchs site, as well as others including Jesus’ traditional birthplace in Bethlehem, for UNESCO world heritage status.