Palestinians to Pursue UNESCO Bid Despite Political Pressure

Quartet says that if UNESCO accepts Palestine as a member, the U.S. might stop providing funding for the organization based on 1990 law stating that American funding would be withheld from any UN agency that recognizes a PLO state.

The Palestinians will not put off or abandon their request for full membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ), despite heavy pressure on them to do so from the European Union and the United States, Palestinian sources told Haaretz yesterday.

Earlier this month, UNESCO's executive board expressed support for giving full membership to Palestine.

Palestine flag - Reuters - September 2011

A vote on Palestinian membership in the organization is expected today or tomorrow in Paris, during UNESCO's General Assembly. The Palestinians' representatives to the organization, as well as senior PLO and Palestinian Authority officials who are preparing for the vote, are openly voicing their anger against the EU for its negative reaction to their request.

At a meeting of the Quartet (representatives of the United States, United Nations, the European Union and Russia) last Wednesday, EU delegate Helga Schmid mentioned the PA request for UNESCO membership in the same breath as the issue of construction in the settlements, Palestinian sources in Ramallah said. Both, Schmid was quoted as saying, were "provocative acts."

A senior Palestinian source said that comparing illegal Israeli activity to a basic Palestinian right was outrageous.

The Quartet also pointed out that if UNESCO accepted "the state of Palestine" as a member, the United States might stop providing funding for the organization. In 1990, the United States passed a law stating that American funding would be withheld from any UN agency that recognized a PLO state.

According to the Ramallah sources, when the Palestinian representatives suggested that perhaps it was time for the U.S. Congress to revisit this "outdated" law, U.S. Quartet envoy David Hale retorted that the activities of the U.S. Congress were not the Palestinians' affair.

The Palestinians have also rejected a compromise proposal by Brussels, which would offer the PA a "member state-minus" arrangement: The Palestinians would be members of the UNESCO executive and would enjoy membership on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee; access to certain World Heritage sites like the Church of the Nativity and the Tomb of the Patriarchs (to which Palestinians actually already have access ); and the right to ratify certain conventions.

One especially problematic clause in the proposal offers the PA funds to help renovate the Church of the Nativity.

"The EU is trying to tempt us with money to sell our principles," a senior PLO official said. Another Palestinian source noted that a request last year for funding for such renovations for the Bethlehem church, "which is important to the entire Christian world," went unanswered.

"There are four countries leading this campaign against us: Canada, the United States, Germany and Colombia," the senior PLO official said.

Both the PLO and PA are aware that the European Union and the United Nations were taken by surprise by the Palestinian request to join UNESCO, which was submitted without warning (as opposed to the request for UN membership). The Palestinians rushed to resubmit their request (first made in 1989) after realizing that if it was not debated during this month's assembly, it would be only be addressed at the next assembly, two years hence.

Senior Fatah official Nabil Sha'ath - who is one of the prime movers behind the UNESCO initiative - said with respect to American and European efforts to stymie PA membership: "You would think we were asking to be accepted by Al-Qaida."

The EU spokesperson response on the subject of the Brussels compromise was: "In the context of UNESCO, we support initiatives that would ensure the protection of Palestinian cultural and natural heritage and enhance education cooperation with Palestine. But we also believe that the issue of UN membership should be properly dealt with in New York before turning to specialized agencies and other UN bodies."