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On Oct. 31, the United States announced that it would be withholding its contribution to UNESCO in response to that body’s decision to grant full membership to a state of Palestine. This decision was neither rash nor surprising; on the contrary, it was mandated by provisions of two U.S. laws, one of which has been on the books for more than a decade.
The Palestinian decision to pursue membership in UNESCO, as well as the subsequent announcement of the withholding of U.S. contributions, must be understood in the larger context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And although the Obama administration may have been compelled to take this action by U.S. law, it should have been done even in the absence of such requirements.
The Palestine Liberation Organization — the body designated by the United Nations as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in any peace negotiations with Israel — had for months spurned international attempts to restart direct negotiations with Israel and instead opted for a rejectionist policy of unilateralism at the U.N. This effort culminated in the submission of an application for full membership for Palestine by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 23.
For months, U.S. and international officials worked tirelessly to avoid this outcome.
Israel remained ready, as it has been for years, to restart genuine, good-faith negotiations without preconditions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had clearly embraced the two-state solution, has repeatedly reiterated his readiness to resume negotiations. In an effort to stem this rejectionist campaign, 69 Republican Members of Congress joined me in a letter to 39 heads of state outlining the dangers of this unilateral course.
When it became clear that responsible countries would not allow the entire Middle East peace process to collapse in the name of rejectionism, the Palestinian leadership began to push an already-existing application for membership in UNESCO.
Since 1989, the executive board of UNESCO had responsibly deferred consideration of the Palestinian application during each of its biannual meetings. It was widely known that this action would advance neither the cause of peace nor the mission for which agencies like UNESCO exist.
This year, however, the executive board joined the chorus of rejectionism by putting the Palestinian resolution before its membership, where it easily passed with support from countries such as Cuba, China, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.
The consequences — namely that Palestinian inclusion in UNESCO would trigger the withholding of U.S. contributions — were well-known in advance; the membership of UNESCO and the Palestinian leadership proceeded anyway.
If blame is to lie anywhere, it is not with the United States, which had made all too clear for months the consequences of Palestinian ascension to UNESCO. Rather, it is with the Palestinian leadership that continues to undermine the peace process and with the membership of UNESCO, which made an active decision to enable this dangerous policy with full prior knowledge of the consequences.
When the membership of UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member, it sent a resounding message to the world that it was more interested in political posturing than it was in pursuing the core mission for which the organization was established.