Unesco chose a poor time to return to its foolish ways. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which had shed its reflexive anti-Americanism (and resultant ban on U.S. funding) in 2002, overstepped into politics this week, voting overwhelmingly to give membership to Palestine as an independent state.
The minor tragedy here is that, by law, the U.S. cannot provide financing to any UN group that recognizes Palestinian statehood. So the vote will cost Unesco about $80 million a year, or 22 percent of its budget. Director-General Irina Bokova is pleading for special treatment from Washington, but the State Department was correct in saying it would comply with Congress’s intent. She might enlist one of the wealthier of the 107 nations that voted in favor -- France or Saudi Arabia, perhaps -- to make up the shortfall.
While some observers view the episode as a blow to American prestige, such stage-managed ploys in UN bodies have long ceased to generate real outrage or effect. The U.S. loses nothing but its single vote in an agency that does some good work such as protecting the world’s heritage sites, but Unesco is hardly of serious global importance.
A bigger issue is that the Palestinian Authority sees the vote as but one step toward full recognition of its statehood by the UN. It plans to seek state-member status in 16 other agencies in coming weeks, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, where the loss of a U.S. voice would be detrimental to nonproliferation efforts in Iran and elsewhere.
Yet it’s unclear what exactly the Palestinians gained from the most recent gambit. It can’t have cheered them that three temporary Security Council members critical to any vote on full recognition -- Portugal, Colombia and Bosnia and Herzegovina -- abstained on the Unesco bid. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly reacted in shortsighted fashion, speeding up the construction of some 2,000 settlement units in the West Bank and withholding $100 million in customs receipts it owes the Palestinian Authority.
The closer one looks, the more the move seems a political maneuver by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make some noise at a time when his political rivals in Hamas have garnered headlines for the prisoner exchange involving the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
We also question the wisdom of the PA’s entire UN strategy. While on the one hand we are pleased to see the Palestinians emphasizing peaceful diplomacy and international law to achieve their aims, in the end even a vote affirming their statehood in the Security Council wouldn’t make them a real, functioning country. Nor can that aim be accomplished through the intervention of the U.S. or the so-called Mideast Quartet.
As has always been the case, a successful bid for sovereign nationhood can only be achieved through an agreement with Israel, which would have to cede much of the land that would be Palestine. And politically motivated votes at the UN are a distraction that only garner Netanyahu more domestic support for his counterproductive strategy of expanding settlements and delaying negotiations.
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