by Charles Onians – PARIS (AFP)
Palestinians won entry to UNESCO on Monday, scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for full membership of the United Nations in a move that Israel and the US said harmed hopes for peace.
“The general conference decides to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO,” said the resolution that was adopted to loud applause by 107 countries, with 14 voting against and 52 abstaining.
“Accepting Palestine into UNESCO is a victory for (our) rights, for justice and for freedom,” Mahmud Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina quoted the Palestinian president as saying. Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, who was at the UN cultural body’s Paris headquarters for the vote, hailed “a historic moment that gives Palestine back some of its rights,” while Israel said it distanced peace. “This is a unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,” the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the move was “premature and undermines the international community’s shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” But Malki insisted there was no connection between the UNESCO move and the possible resumption of peace negotiations, stalled by Israel’s ongoing construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.
“I don’t think that our status at UNESCO will have a negative impact on relaunching peace talks,” Malki said. “There is no link between the two issues.”
France, which had voiced serious doubts about the motion, in the end approved it along with almost all Arab, African, Latin American and Asian nations, including China and India. Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany voted against, while Japan and Britain abstained. The United States and Israel are set now to withdraw their funding from the UN cultural body, while other UN agencies may have to debate the thorny issue. Washington has slammed the move as counterproductive and premature, while Israel’s ambassador Nimrod Barkan admitted before the vote that he was resigned to the Palestinians gaining entry. Staunch Israel ally the United States in the 1990s banned the financing of any United Nations organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member, meaning the body would lose $70 million (50 million euros), or 22 percent of its annual budget. US ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said after the vote that “this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO programmes.” Barkan slammed countries that “have adopted a science fiction version of reality by admitting a non-existent state to the science organisation…. UNESCO should deal in science not science fiction.”
He admitted that the vote, while symbolic, could have a knock-on effect: “There is potential for a cascading effect of this resolution on many other UN specialised agencies and in New York.”
Palestinian leader Abbas submitted the request for membership of the UN General Assembly in September, and the UN Security Council is to meet on November 11 to decide whether to hold a formal vote on the application. As a permanent Security Council member the United States says it will veto any resolution granting full UN membership to the Palestinians, but no one can veto measures at UNESCO. Arab states braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee in October, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions. The Palestinians previously had observer status at UNESCO. Washington boycotted UNESCO from 1984 to 2003 over what the State Department called “growing disparity between US foreign policy and UNESCO goals.” Despite the 20-year US boycott, President Barack Obama now considers UNESCO a strategic interest and Washington sees it as a useful multilateral way to spread certain Western values.