US Upset after UNESCO Board Recommends Admitting ‘Palestine’

The Palestinians got another symbolic boost recently from a United Nations cultural body, but they have yet to gain needed support from several key nations in the West or the UN itself. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Executive Board has voted to recommend admitting “Palestine” as a full member, even though it is not officially recognized as a full member state by the UN as a whole.

The UNESCO recommendation still requires a final vote for the bid to be approved. The United States, which voted against the measure, feels UN moves worsen Middle East tensions. International efforts are still underway to restart Israel-Palestinian peace talks. The Palestinian UN membership application is also still under consideration by the UN Security Council.

Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, speaking to reporters on Thursday, called the Palestinian UN state membership and UNESCO bids “noise and storm” that is taking people away from the US goal of an Israel-Palestinian two-state deal and “causing a distraction and causing tensions to be exacerbated.”
According to a transcript of her comments released by the State Department, Nuland said, “If all that effort was put by all these countries on to persuading the parties to get back to the table, maybe we’d be closer to the day when we have a Palestinian state.”

The US was also not pleased that the UNESCO Executive Board would recommend approving the bid before the UN has given their own thoughts on the Palestinian membership application in the Security Council. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked what the parameters, such as borders, currently characterize the Palestinian state UNESCO is considering for membership—noting these matters still need to be resolved in negotiations.

In comments to reporters released by the State Department, Clinton said on Wednesday, “I have to state that I find it quite confusing and somewhat inexplicable that you would have organs of the UN making decisions about statehood or quasi-statehood status while the issue has been presented to the United Nations.”

Several UNESCO members, including Japan, Germany and Switzerland, joined the organization prior to their joining the UN as a whole, although their circumstances differed from the Palestinian situation.

Amb. Alan Baker, former legal counsel of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and a former Israeli ambassador to Canada, told The Mideast Update by email that while a Palestinian UNESCO membership approval “would have no legal significance, and would not turn the Palestinian Authority into a state, it would obviously have political implications in other UN specialized agencies that will see this as a precedent for them.”

Perhaps the most significant concern to Israel is that the precedent could lead to the Palestinians gaining membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Amb. Baker, currently the director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that was possible. Such a scenario could lead to a legal assault against Israel, which has seen multiple frivolous criminal cases launched against its officials in Europe by pro-Palestinian activists.

“The prosecutor of that court [ICC] has discretion to determine if an entity claiming to be a state is indeed a state, for the purposes of initiating claims before the ICC,” said Baker. “The present prosecutor, who is an international official serving the state that appointed him, has already indicated his tendency to favor enabling the Palestinians to be considered a state. But any such determination by him would be met by solid legal opposition.”

Despite the long-term ramifications, Baker said the UNESCO decision is not a backdoor to recognizing Palestinian statehood. “It’s just an irritant and another fictional achievement that the Palestinians will doubtless use to claim that the international community considers them worthy of statehood,” said Baker.

Clinton encouraged UNESCO to “think again before proceeding with that vote.” Beyond expressing verbal concern, Clinton said the US also has legislation that prevents it from funding organizations “that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition.”

According to Nuland, the US provides 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. She said the US is still determining how the legislation affects UNESCO funding, although if triggered the legislation is a matter of US law and not policy. Nonetheless, the US was hoping that scenario could be avoided. Said Nuland, “We don’t want to see a situation where US legislation might be triggered.”

The UNESCO bid, requested by the Palestinians, can now move on to the upcoming UNESCO General Conference meeting that begins October 25. There it must receive approval from two-thirds of UNESCO member states for the Palestinians to obtain full membership. Currently they hold an observer status, as does the Vatican. Full membership would allow the Palestinians to participate in all of the various UNESCO activities and programs.

The vote saw 40 nations vote in favor, but that lacked several important states. According to the WAFA Palestinian news agency, citing UNESCO sources, France and Spain were among the 14 who abstained, while the US was joined by Germany, Latvia and Romania in voting against the bid.

Israel reiterated their belief that the peace process can only be advanced through direct negotiations with the Palestinians. They recently welcomed the call to renew talks from the Mideast Quartet—consisting of the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia.

“The Palestinians’ actions at UNESCO negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet’s proposal for continuing the diplomatic process. Their actions are a negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process,” said a statement posted on the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.

“UNESCO’s responsibilities address culture, science and education. UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East, yet has found time during its’ current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, October 7, 2011)