Israel May Punish PA After UNESCO Accepts Palestine

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene ministerial Forum of Eight Tuesday to discuss whether to impose sanctions on the PA after Paris vote.

Israel is considering a number of responses to UNESCO's decision to grant membership to Palestine yesterday, including punishing the Palestinian Authority and cutting off cooperation with the world cultural body.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his ministerial Forum of Eight this afternoon to discuss whether to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority following the vote in Paris.

A senior Israeli official wasn't sure whether any decisions would be made at the meeting, but various suggestions for punishment are expected to be raised, including canceling VIP certification for senior PA officials, a surge in construction in the settlements or halting the transfer of the tax revenues Israel collects for the PA.

Jerusalem also warned yesterday will now reconsider its future cooperation with the body in response to the vote.

The United States followed the UNESCO move with a vow to cut off funding for agency, which is the first UN body to accept Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for recognition.

In a statement issued yesterday, Israel's Foreign Ministry vehemently condemned the move, saying it was merely a symbolic gesture which hinders Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement," a Foreign Ministry statement read.

The statement also said Israel would "reconsider" its cooperation with the cultural agency.

The motion to admit the Palestinians was passed by UNESCO members meeting in Paris, with 107 votes in favor, 14 against and 52 abstentions. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday's vote triggers a long-standing congressional restriction on funding UN bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

Nuland said the U.S. would refrain from making a $60 million payment it planned to make in November. She added that the U.S. would maintain membership in the body.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the UNESCO decision was "regrettable" and "premature" and that it undermines the international community's shared goal to a "comprehensive, just and lasting peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Carney added that the vote was a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between the two sides.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called UNESCO's acceptance of a Palestinian state "anti-Israel and anti-peace."

"This is only the beginning," said Ros-Lehtinen. "The Palestinians will now seek full membership at other UN bodies."

The lobbying group J Street urged the U.S. not to cut funding, saying disengagement from UNESCO would weaken the country's international standing. "In addition to undermining our own national interests, it would also deprive Israel of its most vocal and powerful advocate in a key UN organ," said Dylan Williams, J Street's Director of Government Affairs.

Congress is also currently considering new legislation that would impose additional restrictions on American funding of the United Nations, threaten cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority, and slashing military assistance to key foreign countries in retaliation to their support for the Palestinian bid for full UN membership.

Germany also said that the UNESCO vote on Palestinian membership was likely to make it more difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East. A Foreign Ministry statement from Germany said that the country opposed the vote.

"There is a danger that the UNESCO application will further harm the already difficult indirect talks recently begun under the aegis of the Middle East Quartet," the statement said.