Palestinian UNESCO Bid Challenges US Engagement

Palestine’s successful entry into UNESCO foreshadows a confrontation between the United Nations and United States.

It has been over a month since Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stepped on to a podium in front of the General Assembly, held up his pledging document amid an echoing applause and submitted his request for full recognition of statehood to the United Nations.

Back in September, the statehood campaign was a bombshell. Recognition would not change daily life all that much for millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers would still control 40 percent of West Bank land and Israeli settlement construction would most likely proceed in villages claimed by Palestinians for a future state. But despite the practicalities, the measure, even if it is doomed to failed, could still be a win for the Palestinian Authority in the world of public opinion.

Abbas’ statehood document is now stuck in the Security Council. It still has to schedule a vote on the request. But the president’s diplomatic team is not sitting on their hands and waiting for a decision. Instead, Palestine has submitted similar requests to smaller UN associations. And from the looks of one overwhelming vote, it appears that the Palestinian strategy is working for the time being.

By a lopsided 107-14 tally, delegates of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted in favor of admitting Ramallah into its ranks on Monday.

For the United States and Israel, UNESCO’s decision could be seen from a mile away. Yet the mere fact that the international body approved the Palestinian referendum by such a wide margin must have gotten under their skin.

From a purely tactical point of view, Palestine’s admission to the UN’s cultural organization hardly affects Washington’s foreign policy goals in any meaningful way. On the contrary, an additional member to the UNESCO ranks only confirms how vital global educational and cultural exchanges between people are — objectives that the United States holds dear.

The problem, at least from a diplomatic perspective, is that Ramallah’s newfound home will add to the tension that the Obama Administration is already feeling with its partners in the UN on a number of issues, including Syria and the war in Afghanistan. Thanks to a law passed in the early 1990s mandating that the United States cut funding for any UN agency that admits the Palestinian Authority as a member state, President Barack Obama is faced with the uncomfortable decision of making good on that law. $80 million that would have otherwise gone to UNESCO this year has been put on hold, with tens of millions more in jeopardy if the original legislation is not amended.

The big worry now is that once the Palestinians officially join the UNESCO club, President Abbas will apply the same strategy to other UN agencies. The International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for monitoring nuclear compliance around the world, could be the next stop for Abbas and his team. Or maybe the World Food Programme, the institution tirelessly trying to ameliorate the famine in the Horn of Africa and churning out food deliveries for millions of hungry families. If they do, the Americans run the risk of being compelled to disengage from these multilateral organization.

The State Department has already warned that there could be “considerable potential damage if this move is replicated in other UN organizations.” Especially as tension between Iran and Israel is mounting, Congress may not be prepared to change the law however to allow the United States to remain an active contributor to the international community.