WASHINGTON – The immediate consequence of UNESCO’s vote to grant the Palestinians membership is clear: A cutoff of American funding for the UN agency governing the protection of cultures and sharing of scientific knowledge, which stands to lose roughly a fifth of its budget.
What’s less certain is what effect the defunding, mandated by a U.S. law banning aid to UN bodies that recognize Palestinian statehood, would have on American – and, by extension, Israeli – influence worldwide.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted Monday at its General Conference in Paris to designate Palestine as a full member state. The vote at the agency’s Paris headquarters was 107 in favor to 14 opposed, with 52 abstentions.
France cast a surprise vote in favor, while Britain abstained and the United States, Israel and Germany were among the countries voting against. Cheers from the assembled delegates greeted the results.
UNESCO had been warned for weeks that a cutoff of American funding was inevitable if the agency granted full membership to the Palestinians. Among Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, the Palestinian statehood push at the United Nations is seen as a way of circumventing Israel’s demand for a return to direct talks to negotiate a peace agreement.
“I expect the administration to enforce existing law and stop contributions to UNESCO and any other UN agency that enables the Palestinians to short-cut the peace process,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.
Granger had the backing of the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
“Consistent with current law, UNESCO’s action also has put at risk its funding from United States taxpayers, who provide more than one-fifth of UNESCO’s budget,” Lowey said in her statement. “UNESCO must understand that such irresponsible actions have serious consequences.”
Richard Stone and Malcolm Hoenlein, respectively the chairman and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement, “We trust that the administration and Congress will take the appropriate action under U.S. law at the earliest possible time.”
The Obama administration, for its part, acted almost immediately. By Monday afternoon it was already announcing that funding would be cut off, and that UNESCO would not get about $60 million due on Nov. 1.
“Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO,” said a statement from Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
Some supporters of the Obama administration’s multilateralism, however, expressed concern about the impact that the tough U.S. line on UNESCO would have on American influence.
“Here is this old law, first written in 1990 and updated in 1994, compelling a drastic measure that doesn’t fit the offense,” said Matt Duss, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress.
Duss outlined what he said were gains that the Obama administration has made at the United Nations: intensifying international sanctions isolating Iran and increasing awareness of human rights abuses in that country.
“The re-engagement at the United Nations has been an important agenda item for the U.S.; it’s done a lot of good,” he said. “Part of that influence is to Israel’s benefit.”
Pulling funding from UNESCO also could jeopardize many non-controversial programs administered by the body, including tsunami early-warning systems and clean water efforts in poor countries.
Conservative critics, however, reject the assertion that taking a tough line with the UN harms American interests.
“Can someone explain to me why it is this is a problem for the United States? It’s a problem for UNESCO,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.