After Unesco welcomes Palestine, a new conflict front may be open

By Kevin Bloom 1 November 2011

The acceptance of the Palestinian Authority into Unesco on Monday was greeted with cheers and wild applause in Paris, but in Jerusalem and Washington people were a little less happy. While Israel is now debating how to “punish” the Palestinians for their action, the United States has announced it will be cutting all funding to the UN agency. By KEVIN BLOOM.

It’s kind of hard to believe: amongst the “punitive measures” that senior ministers in the Israeli cabinet will debate on Tuesday, 1 November, are an increase in settlement construction in the occupied territories, the cancelling of VIP status for top Palestinian officials (which enables them to cross unharassed through checkpoints), and the halting of the transference of tax funds that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. This is according to a report that appeared in Ha’aretz, a few hours after Unesco accepted Palestine as a full member. Israel will of course also be reconsidering its relationship with the United Nations body.

That Israel is angered by the vote, passed by 107 to 14 on Monday, comes as no surprise. Through its friends in the United States Congress, it has been urging Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to do everything in her power to avert the admission of Palestine to Unesco. What is a surprise, though, is the spiteful and almost laughable reaction to its failure to get its own way. The vindictiveness of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is on open display, and – as US President Barack Obama feared – hopes for a negotiated two-state solution have been dealt a severe blow.

Question is, what were the hopes before Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority took their desire for statehood to the UN? A revealing back-and-forth between State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who gave a press conference on Monday to express the United States’s disappointment, and Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee showed that they weren’t great.

“Today’s vote by the member states of Unesco to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East,” Nuland began.

“I need to have some kind of clarity on how this undermines the peace process,” Lee said during question time, “other than the fact that it upsets Israel.”

Nuland: “Again, we are trying to get both of these parties back to the table. That’s what we’ve been doing all along. That was the basis for the president’s speech in May, the basis of the diplomacy that the Quartet did through the summer, the basis of the statement that the Quartet came out with in September. So in that context, we have been trying to improve the relationship between these parties, improve the environment between them, and we are concerned that we exacerbate tensions with this, and it makes it harder to get the parties back to the table.”

Lee: “Since the talks broke off last September until today, how many times have they met together, with all your effort?”

Nuland: “How many times have the parties met?”

Lee: “Yes.”

Nuland: “I think you know the answer to that question.”

Lee: “Correct.”

Nuland: “It doesn’t change the fact that we are committed.”

Lee: “So how can things get worse than they already are?”

Nuland: “Matt, I think you’re engaged in a polemic here rather than questions.”

All of which proved, once again, how strong the pro-Israel lobby is in the United States. And the fact that the US will now stop paying $70 million in dues and voluntary contributions to Unesco, almost a quarter of the organisation’s annual budget, reminds us that it can be just as vindictive as the Jewish state. Although the US government was obliged to cut the funding due to laws passed in 1990 and 1994 that mandates such a measure should any UN agency accept Palestine as a member – and although officials in the Obama administration have voiced their regret – the core of the matter is that the US Congress, packed with Israel sympathisers on both sides of the floor, supports this form of punishment. Even if it is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

As Politico reports, the funding cutoff could have dire consequences for US movie studios and tech companies, amongst them Apple, Google and Microsoft. These companies habitually rely on Unesco to facilitate entry into markets in the developing world, and the agency’s offshoot, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, acts to protect their products and interests in copyright and pirating disputes. “The potential consequences for American businesses are important enough that the State Department invited representatives of about two dozen technology and pharmaceutical companies and associations to participate in a discussion of the matter in Foggy Bottom on Monday afternoon,” Politico noted.

But it doesn’t end there. Should the Palestinian Authority apply for membership in other UN bodies, as it has promised to do, the aforementioned legislation would kick in again. CNN is posing scenarios whereby Palestine is accepted into the International Atomic Energy Organisation and the World Health Organisation – what would the loss of US funding mean then?

It’s a diplomatic nightmare in the making, and it all boils down to one thing: support for a country that closer resembles apartheid South Africa – in its petulance, spitefulness, and downright brutality – with each passing day. DM

Read more:

  • Israel to mull sanctions on Palestinian Authority following Unesco vote,” in Ha’aretz;
  • Reporter stumps State Department spokeswoman on US cutting funds to Unesco (video and full transcript), on Sixteen Minutes to Palestine blog;
  • Unesco aid cut off by United States, in Politico; and
  • The irony of America cutting Unesco funds, on CNN Online.

Photo: Reuters.


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