November 4, 2011
Earlier this week, the Palestinian Authority expanded its platform of seeking acceptance in international organizations by appealing to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Palestinians were accepted, in a vote of 107-14, and given full membership status. Much like their September application to the UN’s general assembly, this new modus operandi from Ramallah deviates from past avenues in the peace process. The Palestinian Authority believes that with enough international recognition of their status, rights, and borders, they can declare de facto statehood unilaterally and achieve a more sustainable brokering position in final-status talks with Israel. The Obama Administration, as well as the Israeli government, believes this is reckless endangerment on the highest level, that talks will never develop out of this strategy, and that this threatens regional stability.
The US’s history with UNESCO is shaky at best. During the Reagan years the US withdrew from the organization, citing the belief that it was corrupt and “anti-American.” It was George W. Bush who returned America to the fold in 2002, saying the US was “committed to the values of UNESCO.” After Monday’s vote, the Obama administration quickly withdrew from the organization, taking its 80+ million dollars of annual donations with it, or roughly 20% of UNESCO’s budget. The US’s reaction was dictated by a 1994 law which forbids the government from donating to “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” While past administrations have found ways to circumvent laws such as these, there does not seem to be any willingness from the Obama government to do so, as the withdrawal was swiftly carried out following the vote. The US seems adamant in maintaining its seclusion, despite the seemingly dubious implications of its withdrawal. For instance, consider the disparity: the US upholds this law and withdraws from UNESCO, yet continues to maintain its involvement in the IMF and World Bank, both of which recognize Kosovo, a country lacking set borders or widespread recognition.
The overwhelmingly affirmative vote was a telling sign of the shifting politics surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. France, aware of its position in the region and keen on ascending to the fore of Middle East mediation, voted in the affirmative. China and Russia voted yes, as well. Canada and Australia followed suit with the US and voted in the negative. The United Kingdom, in a very typical British move, abstained. Israel, itself a member of UNESCO, obviously cast a no vote. Ironically enough, Israel has increased its push for more involvement in the organization, seeking to add UNESCO’s distinction of world heritage sites to landmarks in Israel proper as a means of solidifying its presence in contested areas.
The impact of the bid is still being measured. The US’s move to rejoin UNESCO was part of a public-diplomacy effort by the Bush Administration and the State department to de-radicalize possible extremists in the Middle East and gain leverage into Muslim communities. By withdrawing support and money for programs that promote literacy, education, and women’s rights, the US loses credibility in the region and promotes the widespread stigma that the US sides with Israel over the Palestinians, while UNESCO loses nearly a quarter of its operating budget. Israel’s reaction was a little less diplomatic. Late Tuesday night Israel’s Inner Cabinet, a group of 8 senior government officials, decided to approve plans for settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The plans call for the construction of over 1,600 new units in East Jerusalem and over 250 new units in the West Bank. The PA shot back at Israel, calling the move “punitive” and decrying the “talk about freezing tax revenues belonging to the Palestinian Authority, [it] is a provocation and theft of our money.” This tit-for-tat bickering is unlikely to relent in the coming months, further sidelining a road-map to peace that is starting to look less like a viable road and more like rush hour in downtown Cairo.
The new name of the game in the international realm of the Israel-Palestine conflict is symbolic pointlessness. The UNESCO vote achieved the Palestinians nothing other than exasperate ties to the US and encourage the Israelis to approve more settlements. The US hasn’t figured out an appropriate response to the PA’s ambitious diplomatic campaign, other than to argue that it threatens final-status talks. The Israelis bemoan the international efforts and make overtures for peace after the fact. Both sides need to clarify their positions and create a general cohesiveness: either halt the PA’s effort by agreeing to sit down for talks, or continue to conduct a foreign policy of isolationism. Either way, both Israel and the US have time to plan future actions. Palestine is currently seeking international recognition in 16 more organizations.