Israel, Palestinians, and UNESCO culture wars
UNESCO, a cultural heritage group at the United Nations, today gave Palestinians membership. Why is Israel angry about this symbolic step?
The members of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a full member today, setting off furious Israeli denunciations and a nervous exploration of options by the Obama administration.Skip to next paragraph
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The vote comes in the context of the currently stalled Palestinian push for full UN recognition – a step Obama has promised to veto if it comes before the United Nations Security Council. The rhetoric on today's vote is already heated. The vote was 107 for, 14 against, and 52 abstentions. I couldn't find a full breakdown of the vote yet. But France voted for, as did China and India along with most of the rest of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The US, Israel, Canada, and Germany voted against. Britain and Japan were among those who abstained.
Israel says the vote makes peace harder to achieve. But it's hard to see how membership in UNESCO (which coordinates educational exchanges, certifies "World Heritage Sites," and is generally the UN's culture wing) makes peace less possible. The vote reflects the broad views of the UN's member states: That it's time for a country called "Palestine" to be admitted as a member to the UN.
It doesn't give the Palestinian Authority sovereignty over the West Bank, change the position of Israel's settlements there, or upend the status quo in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian argument in favor of its overall push for recognition at the UN (a vote on that issue is currently stalled) is that it will galvanize Israeli politicians into working harder for a peace deal, since it's evidence the Israeli government's position is losing international support.
The real argument for a two-state solution (whether you accept it or not) is that Israel's ongoing control of the West Bank leaves it as the de facto sovereign over millions of Palestinians without voting rights in Israel, or a state of their own. In the long run, that confronts Israel with the choice of giving Palestinians full citizenship and the vote (not likely, since that would be the beginning of the end of the Jewish state given far higher Palestinian birth rates), developing an apartheid-style system where Israeli settlers live in the West Bank as citizens while Palestinians have a second, weaker position under Israeli law; or actually reach a deal.
The ground truth of those realities and choices doesn't change in response to what UNESCO does or doesn't do, nor does the range of possible choices Palestinians could make in the coming years. Another intifada, with terror attacks inside Israel? Large-scale, peaceful civil disobedience? An international delegitimization campaign to paint Israel as a modern version of white South Africa? All are possible courses a current or future Palestinian leadership could pursue.