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?

Thibault Camus/AP
Delegates cheer after they approved the membership of Palestine in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions, during the session of United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in Paris, Monday. Palestine became a full member of the UN cultural and educational agency, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.

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.

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.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

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.

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.

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.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.