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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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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.

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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.

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.

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.


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