PARIS - First came the application, then the vote, the acceptance, and the subsequent commotion. And now, up goes the first tangible sign of the Palestinian Authority's latest success at the United Nations: the raising of their flag at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was on hand Tuesday to watch the historic hoisting of the red, black, white and green flag at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is the first time the Palestinian flag has been raised ceremoniously at any UN organization, and many saw the moment as a symbolic harbinger of eventual full UN membership.
"This is truly a historic moment," Abbas said to cheers from some of the 50 guests gathered at the ceremony. "This admission is the first recognition of Palestine.
"It is moving to see our flag raised and for it to be flying in this beautiful city of Paris, among all the other states," he added. "This bodes well for Palestine becoming a member of other international institutions.
"Today, we are members of UNESCO," Abbas stated, "and we hope we will have one independent state in the future that will live side-by-side with Israel."
The decision over a month ago to admit Palestine as a member to the UN cultural agency sparked anger from both Israel and, critically, from the U.S., which funds 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. In response to the move, the U.S. suspended funding.
The U.S. cash freeze has left a hole of $65 million this year and a $143 million shortfall for 2012-2013. It has forced the organization's director general, Irina Bokova, to announce drastic savings, even as some countries pledged exceptional contributions - among them Indonesia with $10 million and Gabon with $2 million.
Speaking at the flag raising ceremony, Bokova said: "A solution with two states living in peace and security has been long-awaited. I want to believe that this admission to UNESCO is a chance to show that peace is also built through education and culture."
During his visit to France, Abbas is scheduled to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and discuss, among other things, Israel's threat to withhold Palestinian tax money in the future as a punitive measure. The Palestinian leader is expected to bring the issue up with the presidents of Turkey and Belgium this week too, as he travels to those countries.
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