Palestinians take step towards full UNESCO membership

Palestinians moved a step closer to full membership in the U.N. cultural agency on Wednesday after its board decided to let 193 member states vote on the issue later this month, the latest stage in a Palestinian campaign for statehood recognition.

In September Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally applied to the U.N. Security Council for full membership in the United Nations, ignoring a U.S. threat to veto the measure, as well as threats from members of the U.S. Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.

Forty representatives of the 58-member board voted in favour of a draft resolution, with four voting against and 14 abstaining, a source at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation told Reuters.

It will now be submitted for a vote at UNESCO’s General Conference, which runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10 and involves all 193 members of the Paris-based organisation.

“At present the resolution being discussed concerns submitting membership of Palestine to UNESCO’s General Conference, which will then be the organ that decides whether Palestine is admitted or not,” the source said.

To ramp up pressure on the United Nations, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) has been looking at alternative institutions that may recognise their sought-after statehood status—a campaign triggered by a breakdown of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel last year.

On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, European Union’s main human rights body.

The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. In order to gain full membership, so-called “states” that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Conference.

It was not clear whether Palestine would need to be a recognized state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.

An official at the Palestinian mission declined to comment.

The PA’s move at UNESCO has sparked anger in the United States with the chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the U.S. House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, calling for a cut-off of U.S. funding to UNESCO if the Palestinian request is approved.

“Feeling that their efforts at the U.N. Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the U.N. system for recognition,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“This attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the U.N., and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme.”

The U.S. government has said the Palestinians can gain an independent state only via negotiations with the Jewish state, Washington’s main ally in the Middle East.

France, which has urged the United Nations to grant the Palestinians the status of observer state—like the Vatican—while outlining a one-year roadmap to peace with Israel, said UNESCO was not the right forum to seek recognition.

“The priority is to revive negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. “We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment.”

Envoys from the Middle East “Quartet”—the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States—will meet in Brussels on Sunday to try to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Mark Heinrich