The push for Palestinian statehood registered an important symbolic victory on Monday, as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted to grant Palestine full membership.
Commonly known as UNESCO, the agency is responsible for promoting cultural dialogue, science and education. Palestine became the 195th full member and will have a vote in the General Conference, which sets policy for UNESCO and elects members of its executive board. But the vote carried greater significance in the context of the Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations, something that the Security Council has yet to vote on.
The United States and Israel have condemned the Palestinian bid for full membership, accusing the Palestinians of circumventing direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The UNESCO vote continues the Palestinians' newfound tactic of using the U.N. as a forum for enlisting the international community's support, according to Rob Blecher, Director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group.
The UN strategy is a component of a shift towards internationalizing the conflict, to trying to push aside the U.S. from its role as a mediator and to try and bring other actors into the mix, Blecher said. They're not trying to get UNESCO involved as a party in the conflict -- it's that this is part of a broader strategy of internationalization, and UNESCO was chosen as a first practical step because of the specifics of membership and who's allowed to get in.
UNESCO functions primarily as a global development agency, working to promote literacy, science, clean water and education -- including bolstering schools in the Palestinian territories. While it has the power to advance certain projects or issue declarations -- the United States withdrew from the organization in 1984 partially because of the perception that UNESCO had an anti-Western bent -- Palestine's ability to advance its cause through UNESCO will likely be limited.
It's just one more vote in a large organization, so as a practical matter it might not make a whole lot of difference, said Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of international relations. It gives them a little more leverage to speak and advance their agenda simply by introducing issues to the agenda that they would otherwise have to rely on Arab friends and allies for.
The vote could cost UNESCO nearly a quarter of its budget. Federal legislation mandates that the United States halt funding for any United Nations agency that accepts Palestine as a full member, and prior to the vote lawmakers on the panel that oversees the allocation unanimously declared their intention to follow through. That would deprive UNESCO of some 22 percent of its funding, or about $70 million.
The administration must stop trying to find ways not to fully implement this law, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, told the New York Times.
In order to obtain full membership, the Palestinians need to win at least a nine-vote majority from the Security Council. The United States has sworn to veto the measure either way, but being forced to do so could damage its standing before the international commununity.
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