Commentary Magazine


Obama Wants to Let UNESCO Off the Hook

In a deviation from the charm offensive he has been aiming at American Jews in the last several months, President Obama has asked Congress to grant him a waiver that will allow the administration to continue funding the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) despite its recognition of Palestinian statehood. U.S. law forbids the funding of any international organization that grants admission to the Palestinians as a separate, independent state prior to its signing a peace treaty with Israel. However, JTA reports that Obama, who is a dedicated admirer of the UN and its member agencies, hopes he can persuade Congress to let him keep sending taxpayer dollars to the group in spite of the law.

Republican opposition to the waiver is assured, meaning the chances of Obama’s wish being granted are virtually nonexistent. But given how anxious the president has been to show Jewish voters and donors that he is, as he claims, Israel’s best friend ever in the White House, the decision to try to flout the law in order to bolster a controversial UN agency gives us some real insight into the administration’s thinking and its plans in a possible second term for Obama.

The Palestinian Authority’s effort to gain statehood via the UN last fall was a flop despite the fearful predictions that the campaign would create a “diplomatic tsunami.” The UNESCO vote was the PA’s sole victory in an otherwise calamitous strategy that illustrated how thin their international support turned out to be. It also debunked the myth that the Israel-Palestinian struggle was the key to unraveling all the problems of the Middle East. Granting the PA statehood without first having to make peace with Israel would not only fail to solve that conflict but would do nothing to deal with the threat from a nuclear Iran which was the issue most countries, especially moderate Arab regimes, cared most about.

But if Obama ever gets his way, it will be a signal to both the Palestinians and the international community that Obama’s devotion to the UN far outweighs the lip service he pays to the pro-Israel community.

While the administration has been campaigning to restore aid to UNESCO on the grounds it is an essential tool of international development, that seems to be more a testimony to Obama’s loyalty to the UN than any tangible evidence of its utility. UNESCO was widely considered the most politicized and blatantly anti-Israel of all UN agencies, and the Reagan administration pulled the U.S. out of it altogether. Since then, it has been reformed to the point where America felt comfortable participating, but its policies are still questionable. In recent years, it has taken stands against what it calls the “Judaization” of Jerusalem and treated the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb outside of Bethlehem as mosques rather than as Jewish shrines. It is anticipated this bias will worsen with full Palestinian membership.

What the pro-Israel community needs to remember is it was largely the threat of a U.S. aid cutoff that ensured the UN and its other agencies would not follow UNESCO’s lead on the Palestinians. If UNESCO goes unpunished it will be an incentive for other such groups to grant the Palestinians their wish. Doing so, especially now that the PA is about to become a joint venture between Fatah and Hamas, would be a defeat for U.S. policy and further diminish the already dim chances of peace.

Though Democrats will spend the rest of 2012 attempting to sell Jewish voters the idea that Obama is Israel’s best friend, the UNESCO waiver request is evidence not only of the falseness of this claim but of what may come in a second term for the president.