Washington — The immediate consequence of UNESCO’s vote to grant the Palestinians membership is clear: A cutoff of American funding for the United Nations agency governing the protection of cultures and sharing of scientific knowledge, which stands to lose roughly a fifth of its budget.
What’s less certain is what effect the defunding, mandated by a U.S. law banning aid to UN bodies that recognize Palestinian statehood, would have on American — and, by extension, Israeli — influence worldwide.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted Monday at its General Conference in Paris to designate Palestine as a full member state. The vote at the agency’s Paris headquarters was 107 in favor to 14 opposed, with 52 abstentions. France cast a surprise vote in favor, while Britain abstained and the United States, Israel and Germany were among the countries voting against. Cheers from the assembled delegates greeted the results.
UNESCO had been warned for weeks that a cutoff of American funding was inevitable if the agency granted full membership to the Palestinians. Among Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, the Palestinian statehood push at the United Nations is seen as a way of circumventing Israel’s demand for a return to direct talks to negotiate a peace agreement.
“I expect the Administration to enforce existing law and stop contributions to UNESCO and any other U.N. agency that enables the Palestinians to short-cut the peace process,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.
Granger had the backing of the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
“Consistent with current law, UNESCO’s action also has put at risk its funding from United States taxpayers, who provide more than one-fifth of UNESCO’s budget,” Lowey said in her statement. “UNESCO must understand that such irresponsible actions have serious consequences.”
Richard Stone and Malcolm Hoenlein, respectively the chairman and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement, “We trust that the Administration and Congress will take the appropriate action under U.S. law at the earliest possible time.”
The Obama administration, for its part, acted almost immediately. By Monday afternoon it was already announcing that funding would be cut off, and that UNESCO would not get about $60 million due on Nov. 1.
“Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO,” said a statement from Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, tweeted: “Today’s vote to grant Palestinian membership in UNESCO is no substitute for direct negotiations, but it is deeply damaging to UNESCO.”
Some supporters of the Obama administration’s multilateralism, however, expressed concern about the impact that the tough U.S. line on UNESCO would have on American influence.
“Here is this old law, first written in 1990 and updated in 1994, compelling a drastic measure that doesn’t fit the offense,” said Matt Duss, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress.
Duss outlined what he said were gains that the Obama administration has made at the United Nations: intensifying international sanctions isolating Iran and increasing awareness of human rights abuses in that country.
“The re-engagement at the United Nations has been an important agenda item for the U.S.; it’s done a lot of good,” he said. “Part of that influence is to Israel’s benefit.”
Pulling funding from UNESCO also could jeopardize many non-controversial programs administered by the body, including tsunami early-warning systems and clean water efforts in poor countries.
Conservative critics, however, reject the assertion that taking a tough line with the UN harms American interests.
“Can someone explain to me why it is this is a problem for the United States? It’s a problem for UNESCO,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “All of these organizations need to assess whether their funding from the United States is more important than their support for the bureaucratic creation of a Palestinian state.”
For its part, the Obama administration had immediate concerns: Drawing back from UNESCO could have repercussions with an affiliated body, the World Intellectual Property Organization. Officials from the State Department and the Patent Office briefed “representatives from leading industries” on Monday on the possible repercussions on protecting overseas copyrights.
“The United States is a leading global voice on issues related to patent, copyright, and trademark matters, and should the U.S. be unable to provide its contributions to WIPO, the impact of that voice could be significantly diminished,” a State Department statement said.
Politico reported that representatives of Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Motion Picture Association of America, PhRMA and the Recording Industry Association of America attended — a signal that the Obama administration was ready to bring in big guns to lobby Congress on the issue.
The statement from Nuland emphasized that the administration was exploring its options.
“The United States will maintain its membership in and commitment to UNESCO, and we will consult with Congress to ensure that U.S. interests and influence are preserved,” Nuland said.
Liberal Israel advocacy groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now urged Congress to reconsider the laws that prompted the funding cutoff.
“Existing legislation regarding the U.N. and the Palestinians must be amended to include sufficient flexibility to protect U.S. national security interests,” Americans for Peace Now said in a statement.
Leading House Republicans seem focused on further ratcheting up the pressure to derail the Palestinian UN campaign. In response to the UNESCO vote, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, quickly announced a briefing for Thursday on “How to drop the Palestinian statehood scheme at the U.N.: UNESCO and beyond.” Ros-Lehtinen has introduced a bill that would reinforce existing laws banning funding to international bodies that grant full membership to the Palestinians.
Israel praised the United States for its swift action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the U.S. defunding announcement was further evidence of a “strong and solid” alliance with Israel.
Yet Israel did not commit to withdraw its own funding of UNESCO, amounting to about 3 percent of the agency’s budget, or to pull out of the organization. An Israeli official told JTA that the government is considering its options.
UNESCO is one of the few multilateral bodies where Israel’s concerns have received a sympathetic hearing; UNESCO runs Holocaust education programs in countries that have otherwise been hostile to such learning.
While Israel has sometimes clashed with UNESCO — such as in 2010, when UNESCO declared that Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs are “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories” — the agency also has taken actions that are seen as friendly. In 2003, UNESCO designated Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus blocks — the “White City” — as a world heritage site, which facilitates international fundraising for historic preservation.
The Israeli official said the government was weighing such successes with the agency against the damage that he said the Palestinian membership vote did to the peace process.
“I don’t see how it’s conducive to the goal of achieving reconciliation,” said the official.
Noting the recent resumption of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel, the official said, “While they were accepting the Palestinians to UNESCO, Israelis were in their shelters. So who is the actor you accepted to UNESCO?”