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UNESCO headed for crisis over Palestinian membership

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation is set to vote on Palestinian membership Monday. The US, which boycotted UNESCO from 1984-2003 over political differences, has expressed misgivings about Palestinian inclusion.


AFP - The US and Europe are stepping up diplomatic efforts to avoid a debacle at UNESCO that could see the UN body lose tens of millions in funding if it votes to give Palestine full member status.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on Tuesday started holding its general assembly, which, like the UN General Assembly in New York, is to vote on Palestinian membership.

But while as a permanent UN Security Council member the US has a veto that it says it will exercise at the General Assembly, no one has a veto at UNESCO, where a two-thirds majority of its 193 voting members suffices.

Arab states braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee earlier this month, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The four votes against came from the US, Germany, Romania and Latvia, while most of the abstentions were from European nations.

Palestine currently has observer status at UNESCO and diplomats told AFP that it would have no problem garnering the required votes to become a full member.

A UNESCO source said the vote would happen on Monday "at the earliest", when Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki is to address the assembly.

Such a move would automatically spark a crisis between Washington and UNESCO, which the US boycotted from 1984 to 2003 over what the State Department calls "growing disparity between US foreign policy and UNESCO goals."

Two laws passed by Israel's staunchest ally in the 1990s ban the financing of any United Nations organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member, meaning UNESCO would lose $70 million, or 22 percent of its annual budget.

"There's no chance that a Republican-controlled Congress is going to amend that legislation," said a diplomatic source at UNESCO, who asked not to be named.

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.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called UNESCO's moves towards accepting Palestine as a full member "confusing" and "inexplicable", has tasked Middle East envoy David Hale with negotiating a way out of the impasse.

US ambassador to UNESCO David Killion has said that "granting the Palestinians full membership now in a specialised agency such as UNESCO is premature" and several European countries, including France, agree.

The US and Israel say that only new direct talks between the two sides can reach the accord needed to set up a Palestinian state.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed in September 2010 when Israel ended a moratorium on settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.

Israel has since embarked on a new programme of approving houses and settlements, including in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem, which even the US has called "deeply disappointing."

The Europeans want to convince the Palestinians to be satisfied for now with joining three UNESCO conventions, including on World Heritage, which is possible for a non-member state.

Such a move would allow the Palestinians to submit requests for recognition of potential World Heritage sites, including those in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Palestinian authorities in Ramallah already have around 20 such requests to submit, including for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

But despite the pressure, the Palestinians are refusing to give up on their demand to join UNESCO that was first made in 1989.

"Joining the conventions won't be enough for the Palestinians. There has to be something more," admitted a source at UNESCO.

"The key is finding a solution that does not divide UNESCO, allows it to keep functioning and takes the Palestinians' desires into account," the source said.


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