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Palestine State Quest Wins First Victory in UNESCO Vote

Jordan Times, 6 October 2011


Palestine won a first diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood on Wednesday when the UNESCO executive committee backed its bid to become a member of the cultural body with the rights of a state.

Palestine’s Arab allies braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the committee’s member states, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The Palestinian bid will now be submitted to the UNESCO general assembly at the end of the month for final approval, a victory for a territory already seeking recognition as a state from the United Nations Security Council.

This request, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 23, is being studied by council members, who are expected to vote in the coming weeks.

The United States wields a veto on the Security Council, and has said it will veto any statehood bid before Palestine comes to an agreement with US ally Israel over their longstanding territorial standoff.

But no power has a veto on the UNESCO committee, and Washington’s “no” vote in Paris was not enough to halt the motion. Palestinian leaders have said they are under enormous diplomatic pressure to abandon their candidacy.

Earlier in the day France, which abstained on the motion, said “it was not the time” for Palestine to pursue UNESCO backing, calling instead for a return to talks with Israel on a final peace settlement.

France has proposed a compromise measure whereby Palestine would be granted the status of an “observer state” at UN headquarters in New York.

But UNESCO membership would not only be a diplomatic feather in Palestine’s cap - it would allow it to apply to classify its monuments as World Heritage Sites at a time when the heritage of much of the Holy Land is under dispute.

To nail down their first victory, the Palestinians will need the backing of two thirds of UNESCO’s 193 member states in a vote on October 25 in Paris. Until then, they retain their observer status.

In Ramallah, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Malki had spoken before the vote of the “enormous and unreasonable” diplomatic pressure being brought to bear to persuade his government to withdraw the bid.

Israel lashed out at the Palestinians and UNESCO on Wednesday after the UN cultural organisation’s executive committee recommended the acceptance of Palestine as a full member with state rights.

“The Palestinians’ actions at UNESCO negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet’s proposal for continuing the diplomatic process,” the foreign ministry said, referring to a call by the diplomatic grouping on September 23 in which it urged a return to direct talks.

“Their actions are a negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process.”

Israel, which has long had a rocky relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, accused the body of having its priorities wrong and said the move would not help the Palestinians achieve their desired-for statehood.

“UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East yet has found time during its current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the ministry said.

“The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever,” it said in a statement.

Earlier on Wednesday, a top US lawmaker warned that UNESCO risked losing all of its US funding by backing the Palestinian Authority’s bid to join the cultural body with the rights of a state.

“I will advocate for all funding to be cut off,” Republican Representative Kay Granger, who chairs the key subcommittee that disburses US monies for diplomatic purposes, said in a statement before UNESCO approved the move.

Also on Wednesday, the US ambassador to the UNESCO called on member states to vote against the cultural body accepting Palestine as a member with the rights of a state.

“The United States urges all delegations to join the United States in voting ‘no’ on this resolution,” David Killion, US ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO, said in a statement.

“We take the floor to express our strong opposition to this resolution,” Killion said. “Granting the Palestinians full membership now in a specialised agency such as UNESCO is premature.”

“Given that the UN Security Council is reviewing the Palestinian application, we believe it is inappropriate for a UN specialised agency to also take up the same matter,” he said.

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