UNESCO director Irina Bokova griped publicly last week about how much her organization is suffering from the U.S. funding cutoff sparked by its admission of “Palestine” last year. That provides Washington with real leverage to foil the Palestinian Authority’s planned bid for UN General Assembly recognition as a nonmember observer state later this fall. Incredibly, however, the administration doesn’t seem to be making use of it.
It ought to be clear that thwarting the PA’s bid is an American interest. First, as Washington itself acknowledged in a memo to European countries reported by The Guardian two weeks ago, it would have “significant negative consequences” for the peace process, to which America officially remains committed. Second, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said explicitly that he wants recognition mainly so he can “pursue claims against Israel” in various legal forums, including the International Criminal Court – which in April declined to indict Israel for “war crimes” in Gaza solely on the technical grounds that the UNGA hadn’t yet recognized “Palestine” as a state. But an ICC case against Israel over Gaza, as I explain here, would significantly increase the risk that American officers could someday face ICC indictments as well.
In its memo, Washington warned that the UNGA bid would threaten U.S. funding to the PA. That may have some impact on already cash-strapped European countries, some of whom, as The Guardian reported, are worried “that the EU would have to fill the funding gap.” But since various European countries have happily stepped into the breach during past PA funding crises, it’s hard to see this as a winning argument even for the EU. And it certainly won’t trouble that vast majority of UNGA members who don’t give the Palestinians a dime.
In contrast, just about every country likely to vote in favor of recognizing “Palestine” has an interest in preserving the UNGA. For most, this is because the General Assembly is a much more effective vehicle for pursuing their own interests than the Security Council, where the U.S. and other permanent members have veto power. But even Europe, which wields significant clout in the Security Council, cares about the UNGA’s continued ability to function, due to its intense emotional commitment to the sanctity of international organizations. Hence a threat that accepting “Palestine” would result in the General Assembly losing its U.S. funding – which amounts to 22 percent of the agency’s budget – could be much more effective.
Yet so far, Washington has declined to make this threat explicitly. One ambiguous sentence in its memo – that recognizing Palestine “would have significant negative consequences … for the UN system,” could be interpreted as an implicit threat to suspend funding, but it could equally well be interpreted as warning of some more intangible harm, such as damage to the UN’s image, or to its ability to facilitate the peace process.
This issue ought to be a no-brainer: Washington has a clear interest in preventing the UNGA from recognizing “Palestine,” and it also has the tools to do so. The only question is whether it also has the will.