Bernard Avishai
Talking Points Memo (Blog)
November 1, 2011 - 12:00am

The admission of the Palestinian Authority into UNESCO has occasioned a fuss about the American response, the automatic cutting of $70 million in funding to the organization, triggered by existing, AIPAC-inspired Congressional legislation. (M.J. Rosenberg's good column on the subject here.)

But the thing nobody seems able to explain is what possible interest Israel, or even the Netanyahu government, has in keeping Palestinians out of an organization that focuses on the the sharing of scientific information and universal artistic and cultural values?

I have argued in the past that no Palestinian (or foreign sympathizer with the Palestinian cause) interested in peace could have an interest in boycotting Israeli universities or entrepreneurs, that is, the people who have an inherent interest in globalism and reciprocity, hence, coexistence with Palestine. Precisely the same logic applies in the other direction. How do Netanyahu and AIPAC justify keeping Palestine out of UNESCO and expect this not to set off renewed calls to boycott Israeli scientists, educators, and artists?

Netanyahu has made much of the importance of "economic peace," of Palestine advancing economically, even under occupation. He may mean nothing more by this than token improvements in living standards, but the larger implication, which even he would not deny, is that advances in Palestinian civil society can only be good for Israel. And the most important changes that would enable such advances are the freer flow of talent and intellectual capital into Palestinian territories: talent for educational institutions, talent for private sector ventures. If Israel were itself serious about peace, it would have long ago proposed Palestinian membership in UNESCO, just as it would have encouraged dozens, hundreds, of Palestinian entrepreneurs to come to the territories and build.

President Abbas has set the PA on a course toward reconciliation. The Israeli government claims to want to head off the turn to Hamas in the streets of occupied territory. Then why stifle the forces that bring cooperation and vindicate the forces that depict Israel as inherently opposed to Palestinian life?

Some will argue that Palestinians, once in UNESCO, will foment disputes over the disposition of ancient sites in Jerusalem and all over the 'Holy Land.' But since when did Palestinians need to be in UNESCO to do that? They live on the disputed ground, for God's sake, and the disputes have raged for decades. Others argue that making any concessions to Palestinian independence at the UN encourages Palestinian resistance to bilateral negotiations. But what resistance? Abbas has said again and again that he'll return to negotiations in a heartbeat if Israel stops its settlement project. The ball is, as it has been for two years, in Israel's court.

The idea that Abbas will give up this stance--negotiate, but not if settlements continue--because of continuing pressures such as denial of membership in UNESCO is not worthy anyone already educated enough to be a member. Or do we have here just another case of Netanyahu diplomacy confusing transparent (and rather pathetic) efforts at bullying with "realpolitik"?


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017