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UNESCO Vote for Palestinians Stirs Debate

  • Lisa Bryant

Palestinian boy holds a flag in the West Bank city of Hebron, Sept. 21, 2011 (file photo).

Palestinian boy holds a flag in the West Bank city of Hebron, Sept. 21, 2011 (file photo).

The United States announced on Monday that it would cut funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, after members approved full Palestinian membership. The move gives a boost to the Palestinians' bid for statehood recognition.

A month after applying for full United Nations membership, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won a smaller victory, full membership at one U.N. agency, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Delegates approved Palestinian membership to UNESCO by a vote of 107 to 14. Fifty-two countries abstained; Israel and the United States voted against. Arab countries helped carry the vote, following an appeal to UNESCO members by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. France and Russia also voted in favor.

Al-Maliki said a vote for Palestine was a vote for what is right, for justice and for the future. But Washington later announced it was withholding payment due in November to UNESCO, although it said it would remain a member.

U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said Palestinian membership to the body will complicate American support for UNESCO. "The only path to the Palestinian state that we all seek is through direct negotiations. There are no short cuts and we believe efforts such as the one we have witnessed today are counter-productive," he said.

But Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi of the London policy institute Chatham House says that rather than stalling the Middle East peace process, the UNESCO vote, and the larger Palestinian effort to gain full United Nations recognition, might energize it. "In my view, the U.N. bid can cause a game change in the peace process. To move the process away from deadlock of the final status issues and basically move ahead," he said.

Shehadi believes the Arab Spring revolts in the region will also add to the momentum. "My reading is that the [Arab] population wants to move on. That the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been there for too long."

The United Nations Security Council will take further steps on the Palestinians' membership application in November.