As expected, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — UNESCO — voted to admit “Palestine” as a full member-nation today, a move that will trigger an automatic cutoff of American funds and participation in the organization mandated by U.S. law. But the immediate response of the American delegation that had fought to either delay or defeat the move was far from defiant.
David T. Killion, the American ambassador, said that the United States, “remains deeply committed” to UNESCO. But he said that Monday’s decision, which he repeatedly called premature, “will complicate our ability to support UNESCO.” The United States will seek other means to support the agency, Mr. Killion said, although he did not offer specifics about any avenues under consideration.
While it is difficult to understand exactly what Killion means by that, it seems to indicate the Obama administration will seek to evade the restrictions enacted by Congress in order to go on supporting the problematic UN agency. Doing do will not only undermine the rule of law, it will send a very loud signal to the world the administration places a higher priority on its devotion to the UN than it does support for Israel.
While the Obama foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had tried hard to avoid this vote, throughout the controversy their main concern has seemed to be their embarrassment about the law that requires an end to U.S. funding for UNESCO if it, or any other world body or agency, admitted the Palestinians as full members in this manner. Instead of directly challenging the notion that the Palestinian drive for recognition as a sovereign state without first making peace with Israel or even controlling the territory in question, the tone of American diplomacy in UNESCO has been more about saving the organization from any inconvenience.
That inconvenience will be considerable no matter how much Obama and Clinton regrets it. The United States provides $70 million per year or 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget. In recent years, UNESCO has largely shed the image of incompetence and politicized corruption that prompted Ronald Reagan to pull the United States out of the group in the 1980s. The U.S. rejoined the organization in the wake of 9/11 as George W. Bush sought to heighten American influence in all multilateral agencies. Clinton and others in the administration have highlighted the good work done by the agency on women’s rights and international development but largely ignored the steady stream of anti-Israel decisions that stem from UNESCO’s role as the arbiter of world heritage sites. UNESCO has opposed the efforts of Israeli archeologists to explore the Jewish roots of Jerusalem, called Jewish shrines such as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron “mosques” and ignored the vandalism of ancient artifacts on the Temple Mount by the Palestinian Authority’s religious arm.
Far from just a technicality or a symbolic measure, the inclusion of the new Palestine in UNESCO will heighten Israel’s isolation as well as be the impetus for a new round of actions and rulings that will further seek to diminish Jewish sovereignty and rights in Jerusalem.
This will put Obama on the spot on an issue where his need to be seen as a friend of Israel will conflict with his devotion to the United Nations. If the United States remains fully involved in UNESCO and tries some financial jujitsu to cloak the expenditure of U.S. taxpayer funds on the agency, it will be a clear signal about his priorities. It will also trigger a potentially explosive confrontation with a Congress whose House Foreign Affairs Committee is already considering legislation to revoke American funding from the UN and the Palestinian Authority because of the statehood issue. The “other means” by which Obama will seek to back UNESCO may rescue the agency, but it could do him some real political harm.