Despite strong opposition from the United States, Germany and several other European states, the Palestinians gained initial approval on Wednesday of a bid for full membership in UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — as part of their broader campaign for recognition as a state by the United Nations Security Council.
But full membership in Unesco could mean a legally mandated cutoff of all contributions from the United States, both dues and voluntary.
Existing United States legislation appears to mandate the cutoff of money to the United Nations or any of its agencies if they grant “full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood,” and more legislation along the same lines has been introduced. The United States contributes 22 percent of Unesco’s budget.
The initial approval came in a vote by Unesco’s 58-nation executive board. Full membership would have to be approved by the 193-nation General Conference, which meets later this month. The Palestinians submitted their bid for full recognition to the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 24, while international political leaders continue work to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“We need the issue of the state of Palestine to be resolved in the U.N. system,” said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations. Unesco, Mr. Mansour said, “is one place where we can acquire our rightful place among the community of nations as a full member.”
Membership would allow Palestinian officials to seek the protection of Palestinian historical sites by the cultural organization, other officials noted. That would create further conflict with Israel. For instance, some of those sites are in east Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed.
The executive board approved a draft resolution for membership, sponsored by several Arab states, by a 40-to-4 vote. Fourteen delegations abstained, including those from Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, while the American delegation joined Germany, Latvia and Romania in opposing the measure. (Israel does not presently sit on the executive board, where membership rotates.) Russia joined African and Arab states, among others, in support.
Palestinians have held observer status at the United Nations and Unesco since the mid-1970s.
The Obama administration criticized the Unesco move. The Palestinian membership bid is “premature and undermining of the U.N. process set out in New York,” a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Wednesday.
“We do not believe that the objective we all have — two states, Palestine and Israel — can be achieved through a culture and science organization in Paris,” the official said. “That objective can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking to reporters while on a visit to the Dominican Republic, said the Unesco board should rethink its decision, Reuters reported. “Unfortunately there are those who, in their enthusiasm to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people, are skipping over the most important step, which is determining what the state will look like, what its borders are, how it will deal with the myriad issues that states must address,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said that lawyers were busily reviewing how and when the Palestinian membership would affect the American financing. She said the administration would try to block a vote of the full Unesco membership even as it encourages a resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The issue is a hot one in Congress. In a statement on Tuesday, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, urged the Obama administration to “make clear that any decision to upgrade the Palestinian mission’s status by Unesco or any other U.N. entity will lead to a cutoff of U.S. funds to that entity.”
On Wednesday, the Israeli ambassador to the organization pointed to the damage that Unesco could cause to itself.
“We hope and pray that the Unesco authorities will realize — and the Palestinians will realize — that there is a very high price to be paid, in American participation in Unesco,” said Nimrod Barkan, the Israeli ambassador.
In a statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry denounced the Palestinian membership bid as a “negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process.”
France, which abstained on the vote, also believes that Unesco is not “the appropriate institution” in which to address the question of Palestinian statehood, its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, told reporters. Still, at the Paris headquarters of Unesco, the membership vote was received with cheers and applause by many delegations.
The Palestinian envoy to Unesco, Elias Wadih Sanbar, told the assembled delegates: “We are inaugurating a new era in which Palestine is recognized.”