Alan Elsner
Reuters (Opinion)
October 28, 2011 - 12:00am

On Monday, unless the Palestinians can be persuaded to back down, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will vote to accept Palestine as a full member state, triggering an automatic cutoff of U.S. funding and wreaking havoc with many of the agency’s programs.

Under legislation adopted by Congress over 15 years ago, the United States is mandated to withdraw from any U.N. agency that accepts Palestine as a full member state in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel.

The U.S.’s withdrawal means that it would no longer fund about 22 percent of the UNESCO budget – around $70 million a year. According to the website of the U.S. mission to UNESCO, some of the programs it funds that presumably will be affected include:

•Systems to provide early warning on tsunamis including special coastal hazards affecting Haiti.
•The study of earthquake threats in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, which was hit by a major deadly quake last weekend.
•Literacy training throughout the world.
•Vocational schools in Afghanistan.
•General support for World Heritage sites, including the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.
•Programs to study and preserve the health of the world’s oceans … And the list goes on.
A senior U.S. official says Washington has mounted a massive diplomatic effort to try to get friendly countries to put pressure on the Palestinians not to move forward with a vote. This official says there is widespread international dismay at the prospect of the United States being forced to pull out of an agency that does so much valuable work around the world.

“Within a few short months, without discussion at the White House or debate in Congress, the U.S. could find itself shut out of a great many international decisions that have a direct impact on American jobs, lives, safety and security,” former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, now President of the United Nations Foundation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week.

“The Obama administration and U.S. allies are scrambling to put together a diplomatic solution, at least in the short term. But in the long run, Congress must also take a fresh look at a law that could literally force the U.S. off the international stage,” Wirth wrote.

So far, the Palestinians have refused to step down despite the harm that their membership will cause to many nations entirely unconnected with the conflict in the Middle East. Sources close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say he is desperate to show his people some tangible success following last week’s prisoner exchange with Israel which boosted the prestige of his Hamas rivals at his expense.

Sadly, a majority of the agency’s 193 member states, whatever their private views, are unwilling to go against the Palestinian bid should it come to a vote. No one wants to vote publicly against a Palestinian state, which these countries are on record as supporting. Quite a few nations (mostly European) probably will abstain but abstentions don’t count — only yes and no votes are counted. The Palestinians would need a two thirds majority of those present and voting to win membership, and there are enough Islamic and “non-aligned” states to deliver that majority.

This is one of those situations where everyone will lose – and yet no one seems to have the will to avert disaster.

In a letter to the Washington Post UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova wrote:

UNESCO supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. We are bolstering the literacy of the Afghan National Police and are leading the country’s largest education program, reaching some 600,000 learners in 18 provinces. We work with the United States to advance democratic freedoms. Mandated to promote freedom of expression, UNESCO stands up for every journalist attacked or killed across the world. In Tunisia and Egypt, we are leading education reform and training journalists. We target the causes of violent extremism by training teachers in human rights and Holocaust remembrance.

This would not be the first time the United States withdrew from UNESCO but it would be the first non-voluntary withdrawal. Responding to a perceived anti-Western bias, the United States withheld its contributions and withdrew from the organization in 1984 and did not rejoin until 2003 when it reached the conclusion that the organization was working positively to address important issues.

Why are the Palestinians so anxious to join UNESCO? Apart from their perception that such international acceptance will boost their claim for statehood, they can use the membership in all kinds of ways to cause problems for Israel. By adhering to the World Heritage Convention, to give one example, they could seek to have Bethlehem declared a Palestinian heritage site along borders that they would define. Other sites that could be so defined include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus, which was looted and razed by Palestinians in 2000 shortly after Israel handed over control of the site to the Palestinian Authority.

UNESCO would be the start of such processes. The Palestinians will almost certainly go from agency to agency seeking membership – the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Criminal Court and even the International Atomic Energy Agency. The latter one truly represents the nightmare scenario for Washington, which could conceivably find itself effectively forced by the same legislation to pull out of the very agency that is taking the lead in monitoring Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program.

The Palestinian statehood issue has now gone way beyond the realm of public relations. It literally threatens U.S. engagement in the world through the United Nations. Millions will suffer – in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

If this happens, everyone should know who is responsible for it. The Palestinian President could choose not to proceed to a vote right now and that would avert the issue. If he decides to go forward, he does so knowing the consequences.


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