US to Cut Funds as “Palestine” Admitted to UN Cultural Body

The United States is now set to withhold $60 million for a United Nations cultural organization after the group’s members voted on Monday to include “Palestine” as a full “Member State” in the body. The vote by the members in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the measure with 107 votes for, 14 against and 52 abstaining, according to the UNESCO website. The UNESCO vote comes as the more significant Palestinian application for full membership in the United Nations as a whole is still being reviewed by the UN Security Council.

The US was one of those voting no in Monday’s UNESCO decision. Now legislation more than a decade old that prevents the US from funding UN groups that give the Palestinians full membership will prevent them from financially supporting UNESCO.

Speaking with reporters on Monday in comments released by the US State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, “We were to have made a $60 million payment to UNESCO in November and we will not be making that payment.” That’s more than three-quarters of the annual US dues to UNESCO—which altogether make-up 22 percent of the UN body’s budget.

She did emphasize the US wants to “continue our relationship with UNESCO,” even as “legislative restrictions compel us to withhold our funding now.” Nuland said they will “consult with Congress” on their options “to ensure that US interests and influence are preserved.”

The US had opposed the move because it could further complicate efforts to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Nuland termed the Palestinian UNESCO admission “regrettable, premature, and undermines the prospect of getting where we want to go… The concern is that it creates tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table.”

The US spokesperson later noted that “the concern here is trying to shortcut the process of statehood, trying to establish statehood through the back door [instead of through negotiations]… What has been granted here in UNESCO is Palestinian membership and statehood status. That’s what’s of concern.”

In addition to the American reasons for opposing the move, there are also concerns about UNESCO setting a precedent for the admission of the not-yet created “Palestine” to other UN agencies or international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel saw the UNESCO move as clearly harmful to the peace process. “This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,” said a statement posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. “This decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations.”

The Israelis have repeatedly called for direct peace talks to restart without preconditions, which the statement noted is the “correct and only way to make progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.”

Said the statement, “The Palestinian move at UNESCO, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process.”

French Explain Vote

In a mild surprise, France voted in favor of granting the Palestinians UNESCO membership, even though they have opposed granting them full UN member status at this time. The French have proposed granting a UN status upgrade to non-member observer state for the Palestinians as a compromise.

In statements by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs’ spokesman and posted on their Foreign Affairs website, the French noted they “would have preferred” that the UNESCO issue be handled after the Palestinian matter had been addressed by the UN General Assembly.

“However, since it has been raised today, we must assume our responsibilities and respond to the substance of the issue,” said the statement. “On the substance, France says ‘yes’—Palestine has the right to become a member of UNESCO whose vocation is to work towards generalizing a culture of peace within the international community.”

However, the French’s main reason for opposing full UN membership for the Palestinians outside a deal with Israel is due to the fear of a “a major diplomatic confrontation, which would lead to deadlock.” Though not as dramatic as the full UN vote, the UNESCO decision has created a diplomatic wave that has upset Israel and will cost the UN group millions in US funding.

Further, while the French reiterated their belief that the two state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be achieved “above all, through negotiations,” the Palestinians saw the UNESCO vote as reinforcing their claims to statehood—without mentioning talks with Israel.

According to the WAFA Palestinian news agency, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying the UNESCO membership vote “is for peace and represents an international consensus supporting our legitimate national rights, at the forefront our right to statehood.” Though he said the vote was not “against anyone,” notably absent from the report was any comment on resuming negotiations with the Israelis.

The Palestinians continue to maintain preconditions before they will return to peace talks with Israel. They have demanded that Israel halt settlement construction and accept the 1967 lines as the framework for borders.

Israel already enacted an unprecedented 10-month partial settlement freeze in 2009-10, during which the Palestinians refused to upgrade talks to direct negotiations until the freeze was nearing its end. The Palestinians then suspended the newly-resumed direct talks after Israel chose not to extend the moratorium.

The 1967 lines were armistice lines between Israel and several Arab nations, including Egypt and Jordan. In this context they would grant the Palestinians the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip, although land swaps with Israel are generally expected. The Palestinians’s precondition on this matter would effectively concede the total amount territory for a Palestinian state before negotiations begin.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, November 1, 2011)