‘Palestinians are changing the rules of the game’

Palestine has received recognition by a UN body – its cultural arm has accepted it as a fully-fledged member. But this decision comes at a price, with the US cutting its part of the UNESCO funding.

Welcoming Palestine to the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural organization means saying “goodbye” to as much as 22 per cent of the organization’s budget. Washington has been the agency’s biggest contributor so far, and the US State Department has confirmed that they will stop sponsoring UNESCO.

A US law, passed in 1990, obliges Washington to cut up funding to UNESCO, should the organization admit Palestine. Nonetheless, this UN body, facing huge budget cuts, voted 107-14, with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes would be enough for approval, or two-thirds of the 173 eligible member delegations present.

The results of the vote present a very sensitive and jubilant moment for the Palestinians and a sour outcome for Israel and the United States. The latter seemed to have been doing everything possible to derail the vote, but to no avail.

Despite education, science and culture being UNESCO’s main focus, the vote has been seen as very much political, as a reminder of extreme popularity of Palestine’s bid for full membership. That application is now pending before the UN Security Council where the United States is threatening to use its veto power in order to scuttle the motion.

­Ramzy Baroud of the online newspaper Palestine Chronicle says that the Palestinians are taking their efforts beyond the US-Israeli circle, even though Washington vowed to cancel funding for Unesco after it gave full membership to the Palestinians.

“What the Palestinians are doing right now, they are changing the rules of the game,” he said. “They are saying, ‘let’s get the international community involved here.’ The US and Israel are finding this extremely upsetting.”

Baroud says that the Palestinians are pushing to get into more international organizations, and particularly into the United Nations itself. The process that led to recognizing Palestine as an independent member of Unesco, he noted, is very similar to the process for gaining full membership in the UN.

“The fact that 107 countries recognized Palestine as a state, as opposed to 14 that did not, is a very good sign regarding Palestinian recognition in the mother organization – that is, the United Nations,” he said.


However, Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute says that the main difference between the Unesco vote and the Palestinian statehood bid is that the US can veto the bid in the Security Council.

“[In] this vote, there is no veto. People went against the US and Israel and voted Palestine in as a member,” he said.

There has been debate about whether joining Unesco has any practical advantage for the Palestinians, or whether it is just a political gambit. Eland says that Unesco is mostly known for preserving cultural and historical sites, and Palestinians feel that Israelis are trying to erase their culture.

Aside from the numerous Unesco programs, the symbolic idea of the Palestinians being accepted over the objections of the US and Israel is very significant. Eland says that the Palestinians are trying a new route in their efforts to have a state.

“They are trying [a] peaceful protest and [they are] trying to get into more and more international organizations to build their legitimacy,” he said. “I think it is a better way than violence.”