UNESCO Palestine decision sets off U.S.-U.N. confrontation

A decision by the United Nations’ cultural organization to admit Palestine as a member state set off a confrontation between the U.S. and the U.N., threatening to strip Washington of influence in several key international agencies while cutting off a major source of contributions to the world body.

The Obama administration said it would end funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization hours after the group Monday voted 107 to 14 to accept the Palestinian Authority as a full member. The UNESCO action triggered U.S. laws from the early 1990s that bar Washington from giving money to any U.N. body that grants state status to the Palestinian territories.

U.S. officials said they would block a planned payment of $60 million to the group next month, and warned that they could be forced to halt payments for other U.N. groups as well if they accede to Palestinian requests for full membership.

The cutoff deprives UNESCO of 22% of its funding, and could force the agency, which focuses on literacy, human rights and the preservation of historic sites worldwide, to soon begin laying off employees, diplomats said.

At the same time, U.S. officials warned that American interests could be damaged if Washington is forced by similar future votes to cut off funding for other international agencies essential to U.S. business and security interests.


One such body, the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization, helps U.S. high-tech, entertainment and other industries protect their property rights, including patents, around the world. The group’s bylaws require that members who fail to pay their dues eventually lose their voting rights.

U.S. officials huddled with high-tech lobbyists Monday to warn them that Palestinian membership in the intellectual property group “would have serious implications for U.S. leadership in this organization,” the State Department said in a statement.

Other potentially affected organizations include the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has helped Western governments monitor Iran’s nuclear program, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Health Organization.

“We see considerable potential damage if this move is replicated in other U.N. organizations,” said Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman.

Palestinians have talked about seeking membership in additional international bodies, including the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian Authority approached UNESCO after prospects dimmed for the bid it began in September to win full membership in the United Nations. The United States has said it would veto that proposal.

While UNESCO membership will take the Palestinians only a short way toward their goal of enhanced international standing, it embarrassed the Obama administration by highlighting its relative isolation on the issue.

Administration officials criticized the UNESCO move as a blow to U.S. efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table to reach a deal that would end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and create a Palestinian state.

The vote, said Nuland, was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared vision of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Administration officials had made it clear they would prefer to have Congress avoid this collision with other U.N. members, stressing their support for the mission of UNESCO and the other U.N. agencies. But a long list of pro-Israel members of Congress of both parties declared that there would be no backing down on the law.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said the UNESCO vote was “an affront to the international peace process and an impediment to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Dylan Williams of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobby that opposes the cutoff of funds, warned that the United States “is going to have to disengage, one by one, from a lot of organizations that are critical to our national security and economy.”

Palestinians hailed the UNESCO vote as a morale booster in their campaign to win statehood recognition. Some described it as a dress rehearsal for a vote to gain full membership in the U.N., which could come up at the U.N. Security Council in early November.

“This is an important turning point in Palestinian history,” said Palestinian Authority official Yasser Abed-Rabbo. “It means that the majority of the world supports Palestinians’ right to become an independent state and a member of the international community.”

After the vote at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, one audience member shouted in French, “Long live Palestine!”

Israeli officials condemned the vote, saying it would change little on the ground and would make Palestinian leaders less likely to return to negotiations. The Foreign Ministry said it would reevaluate its cooperation with UNESCO in light of the decision.

“UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” said Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan. Despite that, he said, the group “admitted a nonexistent state.”

Among the 107 nations voting in favor of Palestinian membership were Russia, China, India, France and Brazil. The 14 voting against the measure included the U.S., Canada and Germany. Fifty-two nations abstained, including Britain and Italy.

Palestinians — who until now have had observer status in UNESCO — say they will use their membership to seek internationally protected World Heritage status for several religious and historical sites in the West Bank, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They rejected a compromise that would have allowed them to sign certain UNESCO conventions without being a full member.

Washington has long had a rocky relationship with UNESCO. The U.S. boycotted the agency between 1984 and 2003, accusing it of anti-American and anti-Western bias. Former President George W. Bush rejoined UNESCO, hoping to use the agency to spread democracy and Western values to the developing world.

Times staff writer Sanders reported from Jerusalem and staff writer Richter from Washington.

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah and Devorah Lauter in Paris contributed to this report.