The UN culture and education agency was immediately defunded by the US, which was due to contribute $80 million to the organization this year, a little more than one-fifth of the UN body's budget. The Obama administration's decision was triggered by a 1994 US law that requires financial ties to be cut with any UN agency that accords the Palestinians full membership.
On its face, this may not seem a big deal for America. Ronald Reagan pulled the US out of UNESCO in 1984, and the country only rejoined in the fall of 2002 under George W. Bush, as his administration was courting UN support for military action against Iraq.
But the law that saw the US pull out of UNESCO would apply equally to any other UN agency – whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which plays a key role in monitoring nuclear proliferation in states like Iran, or the World Health Organization, where the US and other states intensively coordinate international efforts to deal with public health threats.
And under UN rules, membership into the World Intellectual Property Organization would be more or less automatic at this point if the Palestinians pursue it. The WIPO has been strongly supported by the US, seeking to curb piracy of US movies and software.
Palestinian leaders say they're methodically seeking to enter other UN agencies, though are likely to go slowly in the coming weeks. The probable next target would be the WHO.
“We are working on it, one by one," said Ibrahim Khraishi, a Palestinian official at the UN in Geneva, in remarks quoted by the Associated Press today. "It’s now precedent that we are a full member in one of the biggest and one of the most important UN agencies, UNESCO. So it will open the door for us now to go further.”
All of this puts the United States in a bind. Though the State Department said it wants to continue to work with UNESCO, even as it cuts funding, it's hard to see how. The Obama administration is expected to reach out to Congress to find a way both to continue to funding UNESCO, and give the US government flexibility if Palestine is recognized as a member by other, more important UN organizations.
Whether it will get very far in that appeal is another matter. A number of pro-Israel congressmen and congresswomen have publicly backed the cut-off of aid, and called for further steps to punish the UN for the voting patterns of its members and the Palestinians for seeking membership.
Kay Granger (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said in a letter that she will seek to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they seek to join more UN bodies and implied that more UN funding could be cut as well.
"I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending US taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations," she wrote. "Making a move in another UN agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations.”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was scathing in a brief statement yesterday that was quoted by the Washington Post. "Today’s reckless action by UNESCO is anti-Israel and anti-peace,” she said. “It rewards the Palestinian leadership’s dangerous scheme to bypass negotiations with Israel and seek recognition of a self-declared ‘Palestinian state,’ and takes us further from peace in the Middle East.”
Given the overall pro-Israel mood in Congress, it will be interesting to see if the legislation's requirements will be eased. Israel has been furious over the UNESCO vote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government described the 107-14 vote in favor of UNESCO membership (with 52 abstentions) as a "unilateral" and destabilizing move, and his cabinet is considering responses today, which might include cutting off the flow of tax revenue that Israel collects on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of the photo caption mischaracterized UNESCO.]