Palestine won its greatest international endorsement yet on Monday, full membership in UNESCO, but the move will cost the agency one-fifth of its funding and some fear will send Mideast peace efforts off a cliff.
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In an unusually dramatic session at the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, there were cheers for “yes” votes and grumbles for the “no’s” and abstentions. When the results were in, many delegates jumped to their feet and applauded and someone let out a cry of “Long live Palestine!” in French.
“Joy fills my heart. This is really a historic moment,” said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki. “It’s the return of he who was banished.”
But the jubilation was quickly pierced by reality: The United States said it wouldn’t make a $60 million payment to fill out its contributions for this year and would suspend all future funding.
UNESCO depends heavily on that money — Washington provides 22 percent of its budget — but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under President George W. Bush.
Monday’s vote was a grand symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it alone won’t make Palestine a state. The issues of borders for an eventual Palestinian state, security, a solution for Palestinian refugees, the fate of Jerusalem and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved. Some argued it would even make it harder for the Palestinians to reach their goal.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called UNESCO’s decision “premature” and said it undermines the international community’s efforts toward a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. He called it a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan said the decision did “a great disservice to international law and to chances for peace.”
“UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” he said in a speech to delegates after the vote. “However, a large number of member states, though most emphatically less than two-thirds of the member states of this organization, have adopted a science fiction version of reality.”
His government said it was reconsidering its cooperation with UNESCO.
The request to grant Palestine full membership passed 107-14, with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval — or two-thirds of the 173 eligible member delegations present. There are now 195 members in all.
In a surprise, France voted “yes” — and the room erupted in cheers. It was joined by Ireland, Austria and the Arab states. The “no” votes included the United States, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, while many American allies abstained, including Japan, Britain and New Zealand.