U.S cuts funding as UNESCO recognizes Palestine

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 31, 2011 

JERUSALEM — UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, accepted Palestine as a full member on Monday, angering the United States, which announced that it would cut off funding to the international body.

The 107-14 vote, with 52 abstentions, was the first tangible result of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' application in September for U.N. membership with borders that include the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians hope that their success in achieving membership in UNESCO will be a springboard to other international bodies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization.

The lopsided vote came even though the United States, which funds 22 percent of UNESCO's budget, had warned that U.S. law required it to eliminate its contribution if Palestinian membership were granted. A $60 million contribution scheduled for November won't be made, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

Nuland called the vote "regrettable" and "premature." She echoed the long-standing U.S. position that recognition of a Palestinian state outside direct negotiations with Israel hurts efforts for a comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestinians.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington also criticized the decision. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, called the vote "reckless," "anti-Israel" and "anti-peace."

Applause, however, broke out at UNESCO once the vote was completed in the sections that had voted in favor, notably the Latin American, Arab and African nations. One voice shouted out "Long live Palestine" in French.

"This is a vote of confidence from the international community," Palestinian spokesman Ghasan Khatib said. "We look at this vote as especially important because part of our battle with the Israeli occupation is about the occupation attempts to erase the Palestinian history or Judaizing it. The UNESCO vote will help us to maintain the Palestinian traditional heritage."

Israeli officials denounced the vote.

"This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement," Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "This decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations."

Israel's hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israel would consider cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority.

"My recommendations will be very clear," Lieberman said. "We need to weigh cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority. ... We cannot continue to accept unilateral measures time after time."

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz also has suggested that Israel consider withholding tax revenues, a key source of funding for the Palestinian Authority's government in Ramallah, West Bank.

Existing law bars the United States from funding a U.N. organization that accepts members that don't have the "international recognized attributes of statehood."

UNESCO — whose programs include international teacher training, literacy campaigns, scientific studies and efforts to preserve significant archaeological sites — has made do without U.S. funding in the past. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan pulled the United States out of UNESCO, citing what he said was the group's anti-American slant. The U.S. rejoined the organization two decades later under President George W. Bush.

Palestinian officials already have announced that they'll seek World Heritage status from UNESCO for several West Bank sites, which would allow them to request U.N. funding for the sites. One such site is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus.

Other sites are more contentious. A site in Hebron known as the Cave of the Patriarchs or the Ibrahimi Mosque is holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the burial site of the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.

While Palestinians control the site, Israel has angered the Palestinians and others by listing it as a national heritage site that it intends to rehabilitate. Through UNESCO, the Palestinians are hoping to challenge Israeli authority in sites such as Hebron.

"We need to challenge and question the Israeli claim to such places," said Hamdan Taha, the Palestinian Authority minister of antiquities and culture.

The Palestinian membership in UNESCO will take affect immediately after the Palestinians sign the U.N. body's founding charter.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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