News / Middle East

Israel Considers Response to UNESCO Vote

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting with top advisers Tuesday to weigh a possible response to the U.N. cultural agency's decision to grant Palestinians full membership.

Officials said the discussion will include possible punitive measures against the Palestinians, who hailed the UNESCO vote as a historic moment.

UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have sought to join since President Mahmoud Abbas applied in September for full recognition of Palestinian statehood by the U.N. General Assembly.


The vote Monday to accept the Palestinians cost UNESCO nearly a quarter of its funding and drew criticism from U.S. and Israeli officials who said the move will hurt Middle East peace chances.

The U.S. State Department said Washington will not make a $60 million November payment to UNESCO because of a longstanding U.S. law that prohibits American support for any U.N.-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian membership.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said after the vote she is concerned about the financial stability of the agency.

Washington is UNESCO's biggest funding source, supplying 22 percent of the agency's budget.  The U.S. has reduced its involvement in the agency before, leaving in the 1980s under then-president Ronald Reagan and returning in 2003.

The White House called the UNESCO decision "premature," saying it undermines the international community's goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. 

Spokesman Jay Carney said the vote is a distraction from efforts to restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which the Obama administration says is the only way to achieve peace.

Reaction in Israel

Israel's Foreign Ministry described the move as a "unilateral Palestinian maneuver" that would further harm efforts to secure a peace agreement.

The ministry thanked countries that opposed the measure and said it was "disappointing" that the European Union could not reach a unified position to prevent the decision.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said the admission is "not an alternative, not a substitute for something else."

Palestinian officials say they will call on UNESCO to recognize key monuments in the occupied Palestinian territories as world heritage sites.  These include the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the place where many Christians say Jesus is believed to have been born.

The Paris-based UNESCO voted to approve the Palestinian membership bid by a vote of 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.

France voted for the motion, along with almost all Arab, African, Latin American and Asian nations, including China and India.  Israel, the United States, Canada and Germany voted against it.  Japan and Britain abstained.  A two-thirds vote was required by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's 193 members.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.


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