US, Israel and Canada's response to Palestine's UNESCO membership (Updated)
Nov 2, 2011

US, Israel and Canada's response to Palestine's UNESCO membership (Updated)

When Palestine overwhelmingly got approved to be a member state in UNESCO, a long standing congressional trigger was activated which entirely defunds the US contribution to UNESCO (about a fifth of its total contributions). This comes on the back of freezing various aid money to Palestine as a punitive reaction to applying for statehood in the Security Council.

The original bill that has been triggered here was done back in 1994, due to the domestic politics of the time, on the back of the Oslo accords in a bipartisan bill signed into law by Clinton. Twenty years ago the US relationship with Palestine was enormously different. The US now extensively funds many aspects of Fatah in Palestine (refusing to speak to the democratically elected but politically ostracized Hamas), and we have seen 20 years of encroachment by Israel, the elimination of any semblance of Palestinian military power, close alliances from the US with many nations in the region, etc. There is little reason to expect the domestic politics of 20 years ago would make good sense in dealing with the situtation today - back then everybody would have assumed a peace deal would have by now.

Indeed, this situation is terrible for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, because it legitimately puts the US in a bind. What happens if Palestine applies and is accepted to the WHO? Or the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is incrediably important to US geostrategic interests? These are similarly covered by either the 1990 or 1994 bills and unless Congress acts support to these would also be cut. In choosing this backup option (giving the stalling in the Security Council to see if the US won't be forced to veto) it has actually found a significant lever to apply to the US. The plurality of countries is likely to keep voting in favour of Palestine and so if it comes to these more important groups, the US will either suffer massively from its self-exclusion or it will have to do a politically difficult and embarrassing backtrack.

It is fine to argue that Palestine ought not to go for any semblance of statehood outside of the context of a United States or Middle East Quartet brokered peace deal with Israel. But to say that the value from UNESCO in promoting education, science and culture in the world is so worthless that it can just be entirely eliminated in protest to the overwhelmingly plurality that voted Palestine into its membership? This seems enormously counterproductive. It stands to hurt further the US's reputation in the world not just because it is fervently pro-Israel, but because it doesn't have the political capacity not to shoot itself in its own foot regarding things like this. Further, it hurts Palestine on what I believe is both the correct and inevitable path to statehood.

From the standpoint of US domestic politics, such a backtrack seems very hard to imagine. Firstly, the momentum has been on punishing Palestine for its statehood bid as I have written about previously. This is entirely voluntary, and shows the general sentiment. Gearing up for election, the GOP is taking an enormously hard-line stance on Israel and it seems impossible to see how they could offer to grant Palestine a concession because it asked for statehood when all the momentum is the other way even if they could only claim a rhetorical and pyrrhic victory. Despite being in my opinion one of the most pro-Israel presidents, in terms of policy and rhetoric, of recent times, Obama has this rap of being too soft on Palestine and not being a close enough of a friend to Israel. Capitulating on this issue, no matter how ridiculous this outdated Congressional bill is, would come at enormous political costs.

From a technical perspective, the President can get arround things like this as was done with regards to Pakistan/India follow nuclear tests in those countries and with regards to Kosovo's inclusion. However the politics in those cases were substantially different and the political will would seem lacking in this case.

To see how ridiculous this is, consider that not even Israel has cut UNESCO funding. They have however pledged significant sanctions against Palestine such as cutting the transfer of long standing West Bank tax remittances to Palestine and have pledged to redouble settlement building in Jeurselem. Perhaps a part of the fact that Israel has not cut UNESCO funding is that, as this Wikileaks cable demonstrates, they are actively trying to gain influence in international bodies in general and UNESCO in specific in order to combat their increasing isolation in the international community.

As for Canada, it is not burdened by this legislation, any action it takes is entirely voluntary. Canada already has voted against Palestinian membership in the UNESCO, with thirteen other countries, but unlike other countries such as Germany and Australia that votes against this it is going further by immediately denying any further voluntary contributions to UNESCO. Canada would appear to be fighting very hard for the illustrious title of the country closest to follow the US/Israel wishes and against that of the overwhelming plurality of countries in the world. Because the US is cutting its funding, UNESCO will face a funding crisis which will inevitably force it to ask for more contributions form member countries. It may turn out that many countries will be reluctant for their own political and budgetary reasons to increase funding, but the knee jerk reaction from Canada is currently unique.

I think it is ultimately worth putting this into the perspective that on the Palestinian side a lot of these moves are symbolic ones. There are some small advantages to joining UNESCO (such as getting various world heritage sites recognized, something everyone would agree is a good thing) but it is minor. The reasons why this is considered dangerous to Israeli influence is a sort of vague, symbolic issue of building momentum outside of conventional dialogue channels and the like. However, the punitive actions placed directly on Palestine from Israel and the US, and the punitive action to bodies like UNESCO involves real amounts of money that  make real differences in the lives of people. If one must, I can see making a symbolic gesture (such as voting against UNESCO inclusion and various rhetoric) but I cannot see a way where the real consequences (such as cutting funding for UNESCO) can be justified as a response.

Update: Israel has followed Canada in also cutting off all voluntary contributions to UNESCO.

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