The Palestinians scored a victory on 31 October when UNESCO (the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation) admitted them into its ranks as a full member, despite an immediate cut of $60 million in American dues, or 22 per cent of the organisation’s budget.
Membership will enable the Palestinian Authority (PA) to register as its heritage such sites as the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and the Ibrahimi Mosque (or Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, both encircled by the Israeli occupation.
Politically, it will give a boost to the PA’s flagging labours to win recognition as a UN member state, a bid currently snared in a Security Council sub-committee and facing a certain United States veto should it emerge from there.
A veto may not be necessary. On 31 October Bosnia-Herzegovina — a swing state on the Security Council — said it would abstain on the Palestinian bid following enormous lobbying by Israel on its Serbian president, which opposes UN membership (Bosnia’s Muslim president supports it while the Croat president passes).
Without Bosnia the Palestinians may lack the majority to force a vote on the council. And without a vote the US need not veto, sparing itself the opprobrium that would roil the region as Washington once again steps in to defend Israel’s occupation against Palestinian self-determination.
There was no similar escape for Washington at UNESCO’s governing board meeting in Paris. Despite the knowledge of the cut in US funds it approved Palestinian membership by a massive majority, with 107 nations voting in favour, 14 against and 52 abstaining.
Among those voting no was America, Israel and Canada. Among those voting yes was nearly every Asian, African and Arab country as well as emerging powers like Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia. Rarely has the global divide on Palestine been so publicly exposed.
And rarely has the absence of a common European Union policy been so palpable. In a flurry of European disarray France voted in favour of Palestine’s UNESCO bid, Germany voted against and Britain abstained. All three are meant to be European “counterweights” to America’s monopoly of the “peace process”. All three sit on the Security Council. It would be unwise of the Palestinians to count on their unity.
Not that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was in any mood for recrimination. “This vote is for the sake of peace and represents the international consensus on support for the legitimate Palestinian national rights of our people, the foremost of which is the establishment of its independent state,” he said, accurately, after the UNESCO landslide.
Abbas’s strategy of taking the case of Palestine to the UN is bearing fruit — not least in extracting a price on Washington for its defence of Israel no matter what it does.
Under Congressional legislation dating from the 1990s the Obama administration is mandated to withhold US funds from any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member. However, if the US doesn’t pay its dues to UNESCO it will lose its right to vote in the agency. That’s a disenfranchisement that hurts America far more than the Palestinians or even UNESCO.
Since 2003 — when the US rejoined the agency — UNESCO has been a key plank in American foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan, where it funds the country’s biggest education project. That project may now wither.
UNESCO membership also confers voting rights in other UN agencies, including the World Property Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). In the last year the WIPO has advised dozens of US companies on laws protecting intellectual property rights. But “if Palestine joins the WIPO, the US will have to pull out, limiting its ability to advance American interests and create jobs at home,” wrote former Senator, Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, in the Huffington Post on 31 October.
Finally, the PA’s success at UNESCO will surely spur it to join other heavyweight UN affiliates like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Membership of the ICC may allow the PA to prosecute Israel for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including the illegal transfer of settlers into occupied territory
Palestinian membership of IAEA would cause a real problem for America’s role in an agency that is central to its policies of containing Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes and promoting nuclear non-proliferation, writes Wirth. “Should the US stop paying dues to the IAEA — which it could be forced to do under current legislation if Palestine is admitted as a member — the US would have to give up (its) vote on the board. It would literally lose a seat at the table during the next nuclear crisis”.
Because of its unconditional defence of Israel — and in the name of an imaginary peace process — the US is condemning itself to isolation in a range UN bodies it knows are vital to its national security. That may bring the Obama administration peace with a pro-Israel Congress but risks increasing American irrelevance abroad.
“There are significant problems if [Palestinian membership of UN agencies] begins to cascade,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress last month, before UNESCO “cascaded” in Palestine’s favour. “What happens with the IAEA? What happens with the World Health Organisation? What happens with the Food and Agriculture Organisation?” she asked.