Using the United Nations

In past decades, Palestinian nationalists thought they had to hijack planes or blow up Israeli civilians in order to attract international attention. Some still do, but moderate leaders are lately discovering that the path to recognition might lie instead through the United Nations. On Monday, they won a key victory when Palestine — a state that doesn’t technically exist — was granted membership in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. That’s giving the Obama administration fits and angering pro-Israel members of Congress from both U.S. political parties, but regardless of how one feels about the proper borders of Israel, the Palestinian switch to a diplomatic strategy represents progress.

It is also working brilliantly, if the Palestinians’ goal is to bring attention to their cause. The UNESCO vote showed that it is the United States and Israel, not the Palestinians, that are internationally isolated. The U.S. was on the losing side of a 107-14 vote in favor of membership, with 52 countries abstaining, including staunch U.S. ally Britain; another close European ally, France, voted in favor of the Palestinians. That result came in spite of a fevered campaign by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to shore up support in foreign capitals for the U.S. position.

Because of laws passed in the early 1990s that bar American funding for any U.N. agency that grants membership to Palestinians, Washington must now withhold $80 million from UNESCO, about 22% of its budget. That’s of little immediate consequence. UNESCO, which runs anti-poverty, educational and cultural programs around the world, is a low priority for Washington, which pulled out completely from 1984 to 2003, and other countries will probably step up to fill the agency’s budget hole. But the success is likely to embolden Palestinian leaders to seek membership in agencies with much bigger impacts on U.S. interests, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (which helps protect patents and copyrights and is of great importance to Hollywood and Silicon Valley), the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. That would force the U.S. to pull its funding from, and eventually lose its membership in and influence over, these bodies.

The anti-Palestine laws should be repealed. What’s needed are policies that would encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences at the bargaining table, but these laws exert no such pressure, have little impact on U.N. votes (possibly because the loss of U.S. funding doesn’t pose as big a threat as it once did) and could greatly reduce American influence around the world. Political reality being what it is, we have no expectation that Congress will do the right thing. The likely result will not be a more peaceful Middle East, but a more isolated United States.