Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

UNESCO Board Recommends Palestinian Membership

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On October 5, the Palestinians passed the first stage towards full membership at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), when the UNESCO board voted in favour of a Palestinian state being given UNESCO membership.

Forty of the 58 countries voted in favor, 14 abstained and the four countries that voted against were the US, Germany, Romania and Latvia.

The Palestinian application for UNESCO membership will now move to the General Conference, where UNESCO's 193 member states will vote on it. The next General Conference is scheduled from October 25 to November 10. A two-thirds majority of conference members is necessary for membership.

The push for UNESCO membership follows the Palestinian application for full UN membership last month. The UN Security Council Committee that reviews UN membership applications is considering the Palestinian request to determine whether it meets UN criteria.

Currently the Palestinians have only observer status at both the UN and UNESCO. By seeking membership at UNESCO, the Palestinians are broadening their push for international recognition, pursuing potentially faster avenues. UNESCO membership could also provide the Palestinians a greater bargaining chip by allowing them to seek protected UN status for disputed cultural heritage sites. In addition to UNESCO, the Palestinians are also seeking membership at the World Trade Organization and recently won partnership status in the Council of Europe.

The Palestinian application to UNESCO has been highly criticised. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said that UNESCO was not the "appropriate forum" for a vote on Palestinian membership, and that October's meeting of UNESCO members was "not the time" to discuss the issue.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

"I ... would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United Nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations."

Clinton also said:

"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."

The US has indicated that if the Palestinians become full members of UNESCO, it may stop contributing funds to UNESCO, which could cripple UNESCO, given that the US contributes 22 percent of its budget. US law prohibits it from funding a UN organisation that grants full membership to any group "that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."

The US withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 to protest a resolution adopted years earlier that had equated Zionism with racism and did not rejoin for nearly 20 years.

Israel's Foreign Ministry has responded by stating that the Palestinian request for membership to UNESCO is a "rejection of the path of negotiations, as well as of the Quartet plan to continue with the political process." Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan urged countries "not to politicize UNESCO and leave this subject to New York".

Barkan also said that "the tragedy is that this hampers UNESCO from doing its real job," noting that the agency's board has taken up five Israel-related issues in recent days and none regarding Syria or Libya. "A relatively small minority is hijacking the organization for other purposes".

This is not the first time UNESCO has been hijacked for political purposes. In 2010, UNESCO adopted proposals initiated by Arab member states to label two Jewish historical sites "Palestinian." In a 44-1 vote, with 12 abstentions, the UNESCO board declared the "Haram al-Ibrahm/the Cave of the Patriarchs and Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb" to be "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories" and asserted "that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law".

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced that UNESCO decision as an "absurd" attempt to "detach the people of Israel from its heritage." He asked:

"If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel, some 4,000 years ago, are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?"

And earlier this year, AIJAC's Allon Lee posted a blog on how following a Jordanian complaint, UNESCO condemned Israel for rebuilding a ramp in the Old City that collapsed six years ago. Yet Jordan had previously signed an agreement with Israel agreeing to replace the wooden bridge that had been installed after the original earthen ramp collapsed.

The UNESCO consideration of Palestinian membership is another example of its politicisation which should be strongly avoided, as it undermines its important role as a scientific and cultural group that encourages international cooperation.