Monday, October 31, 2011

UNESCO Recognizes Palestine

Today UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state. Due to legislative restrictions, the Obama administration was forced to cut funds to the UN body, which derives about 22% of its budget from the United States. The move is a coup for the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations, which has long sought full recognition as a member state and recently submitted a formal bid for statehood to the General Assembly.

Legislation passed by Congress in the 1990's banned the US from supporting any UN body which accepted Palestine as a full member. However, as the Palestinians continue to push their case at the UN, this legislation will increasingly stand to harm US interests, a point to which State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland alluded in her press conference earlier today. Given the multilateral approach of the Obama administration, spearheaded by State, no one in the administration is thrilled to be cutting aid to UNESCO. The body supports Holocaust education, African youth empowerment, and diversity promotion, causes which are very awkward for the United States to stand against. The move is also likely to spur tension between the administration and Congress, whose strongly pro-Israel members today called the UNESCO vote "an affront to the international peace process" as well as "anti-Israel and anti-peace."

Given the approach of an election year, the Obama administration's negotiations with Congress over the terms of legislation relating to Israel are not likely to be high profile. However, they should serve as a warning for the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood. In this case, knee-jerk reactions to Palestinian admission ended up backfiring on the United States. They failed as a deterrent to the Palestinian leadership, which instead allowed these knee-jerk reactions to create international pressure on the US and Israel. This international pressure harms Israel by limiting the diplomatic leverage of its key ally, to say nothing of harming the key ally itself. Pro-Israel actors should keep this harm in mind in the wake of today's vote, and in the shadow of votes to come.

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