UNESCO to vote on Palestine membership

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Palestinians moved a step closer to full membership of UNESCO, the UN cultural agency yesterday (5 October) when its board decided to let 193 member countries vote on admission this month.

The latest move in Palestine's quest for statehood recognition drew a swift rebuke from the United States and Israel, which both argue that the way to create Palestine is through negotiations, and a cool response from France.

In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the Security Council for full membership of the United Nations, ignoring a US warning that it would veto the move, as well as threats from members of the US Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.

At UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 40 representatives of the 58-member board voted in favour of putting the matter to a vote, with four — the United States, Germany, Romania and Latvia — voting against and 14 abstaining, a source at the agency told Reuters.

That set the scene for a membership vote at UNESCO's General Conference, a meeting that runs from 25 October to 10 November 10 and involves all 193 members of the agency, based in Paris.

It also raised questions about whether Washington might be required by US law to cut off funding for the agency if it were to accept the Palestinians as a member. The US pays 22% of UNESCO's dues, the State Department said.

Exacerbating Israeli-Palestinian tensions?

US ambassador to UNESCO David Killion urged in a statement all delegations to join the United States in voting "no." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she found it "inexplicable" that UNESCO would consider moving ahead on a Palestinian vote while the issue was still before the United Nations Security Council.

"I … would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic where she was on an official visit.

Nimrod Barkan, Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, said the move would harm the agency and would not advance Palestinian aspirations.

"The problem is that the politicisation of UNESCO is detrimental to the ability of the organisation to carry out its mandate," he told Reuters. "It is not too late to wake up and save this organisation from politicisation."

The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. In order to gain full membership, so-called 'states' that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Conference.

It was not clear whether Palestine would need to be a recognised state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.

Barkan said he hoped there would be time between now and the General Conference to 'undo' the decision, arguing that there was no such entity as Palestine.

To keep pressure on the United Nations, Abbas's Palestinian Authority has been looking at institutions that may recognise their sought-after statehood status — a campaign triggered by a breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a year ago.

On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, the European Union's main human rights body.

Top Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdaineh said the UNESCO vote showed there was international support for Palestinian statehood.

"The recommendation has been put forward for us to have full membership of UNESCO and it is another political battle in the right direction to reinforce the status Palestinian people," Abu Rdaineh told Reuters.

US Concerns

The maneuvering at UNESCO also angered US lawmakers.

Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said US funding for UNESCO could be cut if full membership was granted.

"Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations," Granger said in a statement.

"Making a move in another UN agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations," said Granger, who recently held up some $200 million of aid for Palestinians.

The US government has said the Palestinians can gain an independent state on land occupied by Israel in a 1967 war only via negotiations with the Jewish state, Washington's main ally in the Middle East.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said the actions by the Palestinians at UNESCO were "a negative response … to efforts to promote the peace process … (and) negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet's proposal for continuing the diplomatic process."

Envoys from the Middle East 'Quartet' — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — will meet in Brussels on Sunday to try to revive peace efforts.

France, which has advocated observer status of the United Nations, said that UNESCO was not the place to further the Palestinian case for recognition.

"The priority is to revive negotiations," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. "We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 5 October that the UN cultural agency UNESCO should "think again" on plans to vote on Palestinian membership, noting that such a move could cause the United States to cut funds for the group.

"I ... would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations," Clinton told a news conference in the Dominican Republic, quoted by the daily Haaretz.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry said that in the absence of a common EU position, it would likely back the executive committee's recommendation and vote for Palestine's UNESCO membership.

"The government anticipates that it will vote in favour of this recommendation during the general assembly, if the vote takes place and no common European position has been reached," the ministry said in a statement.

A EURACTIV source in UNESCO however told EURACTIV that the among the 11 EU countries board members of the organisation, Germany, Latvia and Romania have voted against, while Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Poland and Slovakia had abstained.

The European Union nourished hopes to persuade Palestinian leaders to drop plans for full United Nations membership at the September session of the General assembly in return for a nuanced upgrading of their UN observer status, EU diplomats said yesterday (15 September).

The Palestinians want their status upgraded from 'observer' to full membership. Full membership as an independent state would require the support of the UN Security Council. But the United States has said it would veto such a Palestinian resolution.

Riding on France's new status in the Arab world following the Libya War, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on 21 September for an "intermediate stage" in the recognition of Palestine by the UN.

Sarkozy's proposal to admit Palestine to the United Nations as an observer state, like the Vatican, is in sharp contrast with the position of the United States which said they would veto the bid by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for full membership. Also, it became clear that France doesn't have the backing of all EU states for pushing forward its initiative.

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