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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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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."

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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.

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