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?
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The vote could prove a crippling one for UNESCO itself, because of a US law passed in 1994 that makes it illegal for the federal government to fund any UN organization that grants the "Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member state." A number of pro-Israel congressman immediately insisted that the law should be enforced, and not amended, and earlier today, the Obama administration followed through. The State Department said it would cut its next promised payment – $60 million, due in November.Skip to next paragraph
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UNESCO has always been oddly controversial, a far less powerful UN body than the Security Council or groups like the World Food Program or UN Development Program, but a target for denunciation and anger. During the cold war, it was often seen in the West as a tool of Soviet ambitions, and among conspiracy theorists it's a think tank for the shadowy "New World Order" they believe the UN is seeking to impose on the globe. In recent years, Israel has sparred with UNESCO over the designations of archeological sites as primarily Muslim. Highly sensitive to be sure. But UNESCO designations have no power to effect sovereignty.
In Israel, the condemnation was swift in coming and unequivocal. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was furious, as was his foreign minister. "We need to weigh cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority" in response, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "We cannot continue to accept unilateral measures time after time."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a critical, contradictory statement on the vote. On the one hand, "this is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground," the Ministry said. On the other "it further removes the possibility for a peace agreement." It seems to me that removing the possibility for a peace agreement is about as significant a change on the ground as there could be when it comes to Israeli-Palestinians relations.
Israel has expressed concern that the Palestinian bid for UN membership is the prelude to a broad international campaign to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
The White House generally shares Israel's views on the matter, though more measured in tone. "Today's vote at UNESCO to admit the Palestinian Authority is premature and undermines the international community's shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. The vote "distracts us from our shared goal of direct negotiations that result in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side."
The US relationship to UNESCO, and the UN more generally, could get decidedly chilly again. Ronald Reagan withdrew the US from UNESCO in 1984, charging that the UN group was slanted in favor of the Soviet Union. The US rejoined UNSECO under President George W. Bush in late 2002, in a move designed to win general UN backing for sanctions and possible war with Iraq. Now, some politicians are urging the US to withdraw from the group once more.