A.D. McKenzie
Inter Press Service (IPS) (Analysis)
October 27, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestine’s bid to become a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has created a tense atmosphere here, as the United States threatens to cut financing if the application is approved.

Delegates to the agency’s 36th General Conference, which began this week, faced heightened security and a barrage of international media attention, as UNESCO’s 193 member states prepare to vote on the Palestinian request.

Sitting in the back of the main conference hall Wednesday, the Palestinian representation seemed determined to stay on track. They told reporters that they were optimistic about the outcome.

"I think the vote will be positive," said Ismail Tellawi, secretary general of the Palestinian National Commission for Education, Culture and Science.

"We’re not discussing political issues. This is about protecting our cultural heritage and the Palestinian people need this protection," he told IPS, as the general conference rolled on with speeches by various heads of state.

"I think even Israel may say ‘yes’," Tellawi said, before quickly adding, "That’s just a joke."

One country that will obviously vote "no" is the United States. Under pressure from Israel and pro-Israeli members of Congress, the United States was among four member states that rejected the Palestinian bid earlier this month when the issue was put before UNESCO’s 58-member executive board.

The board and the General conference are UNESCO’s governing bodies, and they make decisions on admission to the organisation. The board passed a recommendation to admit Palestine by a vote of 40 in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions, despite American displeasure.

"I feel sorry about the attitude of the United States in UNESCO," Tellawi told IPS. "They’re threatening to stop aid to Palestine and to leave UNESCO. It’s a negative attitude. Why must the U.S. stand against Palestinian issues? Why?"

That query may gain some light during the vote, whose timing had still not been specified Wednesday, the second day of the general conference. The Palestinian delegation said they had requested that their foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, be allowed to address the General Conference next Monday, but UNESCO’s media office said that the date had not been confirmed.

There was also confusion about how many positive votes were needed for admission. A Palestinian representative said that "50 percent plus one" was required, but a UNESCO spokesperson told IPS that a two-thirds majority vote was necessary for admission. Delegates interviewed said they expected the Arab countries and most of the African and Asian states to vote in favour, and that some 100 countries seem to be leaning in that direction. They also expected several abstentions.

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, has said that full membership for Palestine would be "premature". Unlike at the United Nations Security Council, the United States has no veto power over the UNESCO vote, however.

The Security Council is currently looking at a request by Palestine to be recognised as a state, a request made last month by the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. But the U.S. government wants Palestine and Israel to reach a peace deal before nationhood consideration.

If UNESCO admits Palestine, American officials are threatening to cut funding to the organisation and even to end their own membership. The U.S. financial contribution makes up 22 percent of the organisation’s budget, according to UNESCO officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged UNESCO to re-think its decision. Last May, Clinton paid a high-profile visit to UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, the first U.S. secretary of state to do so. It had seemed then that a new positive relationship between the organisation and the United States was well on its way.

The country has quit UNESCO once before, withdrawing in 1984 because of what it perceived as ideological attacks against the West. It rejoined in 2003. Part of the gap in funding was filled by other states.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians say they are tired of waiting to be recognised as a sovereign nation.

"Since 1974, we’ve been an observer at the United Nations. It’s enough," said a member of the Palestinian National Commission for UNESCO. "When the United States was outside UNESCO, the organisation still managed to carry on."

After UNESCO’s executive board vote, Israel’s foreign ministry stated that membership in the organisation would not advance Palestine’s aspirations to be recognised as an independent state and that the bid was a "rejection" of the path of negotiations. Israel itself was implicitly censured by the European Federation of Journalists earlier this month. The EFJ said threats were made against the French public TV channel France 2 "over a television programme on the potential creation of a Palestinian state." "We condemn all forms of threats against journalists who have done their work, especially on a politically sensitive issue such as the Israeli-Palestinian relations," stated Beth Costa, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists which comprises the EFJ.

The Oct. 3 television broadcast entitled ‘Eye on the planet’ (Un oeil sur la planète) on the question "Is a Palestinian state possible?" drew "particularly hostile reaction from some viewers, including verbal attacks on the presenters," the group said.

French media reported that the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France and the embassy of Israel requested a meeting with the president of France Televisions to discuss the TV programme.

"We do not do politics, but journalism," stated Costa. "And it is not up to any community organisation or any embassy to interfere in editorial matters on programmes by the French public broadcasting service simply because they disagreed with the content."

With the membership vote at UNESCO, one can expect even stronger disagreement to arise.


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