U.S., EU scramble to delay Palestinian bid to join UNESCO
European and Israeli diplomats say Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was presented with a compromise proposal, but that he had yet to respond.
The United States and the European Union are in the midst of marathon diplomatic efforts to delay a vote on the admission of Palestine as a full member of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The vote is currently expected to take place this week in Paris.
European and Israeli diplomats have said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been presented with a compromise proposal that would delay a vote on Palestinian membership in UNESCO, but he has not yet responded. On Monday, the UNESCO General Conference will begin debating the Palestinian membership request, with a vote on the application due to take place on Monday or at the latest, Tuesday.
The Palestinians are expected to garner a large majority in support of their application. Diplomatic efforts are therefore centered on a delay of the vote. If Palestinian membership in UNESCO is approved, it is expected to have a snowball diplomatic effect with far-reaching implications. The most serious byproduct would be an end to American funding of the UN organization.
A law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 provides for a halt to American funding for any UN agency that gives the Palestine Liberation Organization nation-state status. The United States is the primary funder of UNESCO and a withdrawal of American funding could cripple the UN agency.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is extremely concerned about a loss of American funding and has been putting pressure on Abbas to delay a vote on the membership application at least until the end of debate in the UN Security Council over the Palestinian bid for full UN membership.
Ban expects all parties to conduct themselves responsibly to avoid the serious implications for UNESCO of a vote in Paris, UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry told Haaretz, warning that the agency's educational and cultural programming around the world could be harmed. Another byproduct could be the imposition by Israel of initial sanctions on the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the Palestinian application to the Security Council for full UN membership, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refrained from imposing punitive measures on the PA because the bid has not yet been voted on. Acceptance of Palestine as a member of UNESCO, however, would generate tremendous pressure on Netanyahu to take punitive steps, such as halting the transfer of Palestinian tax proceeds to the PA.
Senior Israeli and European diplomats have said that the United States and the EU have presented Abbas with two compromise proposals. The first would provide for a resolution making the Palestinians a party to several of UNESCO's international treaties. It would also defer a vote on full membership of the agency for several months, until the Palestinian application for full UN membership runs its course. The Europeans have also promised that a special Palestinian session of UNESCO would be convened in the future if the PA agreed to defer the current vote in Paris.
A second proposal offers adoption by the UNESCO General Conference of a proposal admitting Palestine as a full agency member, but with a provision that implementation of the resolution would be deferred by several months. "The aim of both compromise proposals is to head off the American budget cut to UNESCO," a senior Israeli diplomat said.
Abbas has not given a final response to either compromise offer. A senior European diplomat has noted, however, that the Palestinian president has said a retreat from the UNESCO bid would cause him serious harm. The European official said Abbas was concerned about a replay of the Goldstone Commission findings on Israel's Cast Lead operation in Gaza. In that instance Abbas was criticized for agreeing to a deferral of action on the report.
Over the weekend, Abbas' foreign minister, Riad Malki, said the Palestinians will accept nothing less than full UNESCO membership. Nonetheless, at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, there is a sense that the Palestinians would be ready to accept compromise formulas, particularly out of concern that they would be blamed for a cut in UNESCO funding. "Abu Mazen [Abbas] doesn't want to be accused of [causing] such serious harm to a UN organization," a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.