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Palestinians join UNESCO - symbolic step to statehood?

The emotional victory may not be a game-changer, but to consider it merely symbolic is missing deep potential consequences of full acceptance into a UN club.

This post has been updated, 31 October, 8:40pm

The Palestinian Authority won a major victory on Monday by being accepted to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The acceptance is a critical moment, not so much because it will really affect the lives of most Palestinians, but for what it says about the unfolding international attitudes and policy, and for Palestine and Israel. Here are a few possible implications.

1. UNESCO itself took a major risk in approving Palestine’s entry, as the United States must cut off its financial contribution to the organization  if Palestine joins, according to a long-standing law – 15 years old, to be exact. That’s 22% of the organization’s budget. Facing down this risk and taking the leap is a bold move for UNESCO.

But it also ultimately tells the world that there are other ways to legitimize Palestine even if the hamstrung Security Council prevents it from winning the big prize of UN membership.  Thus in a symbolic sense, UNESCO erodes the exclusive province of the General Assembly and Security Council over sovereignty.

2. UNESCO not only took a bold stand, but it did so with a ringing and enthusiastic endorsement: The number of votes for admitting Palestine dwarfed the other votes – at 107, it was double the number of those who abstained (52) and more than seven times higher than the votes against (14). At the critical moment, a huge cheer went up among the delegates, reported observers, supporting the results.This emphasizes clearly where world sentiment lies.

3. While it’s easy to dismiss the vote as “merely” symbolic, there is nothing insignificant about the fact that Palestine can now request World Heritage status for holy sites in Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and possibly other areas of religious and historical significance. This will undoubtedly further entrench the sense of Palestine’s globally recognized heritage and history, and deepen its claim to statehood. Since the claim to Palestinian self-determination and statehood, has already been recognized by both the UN and Israel itself, it becomes increasingly feeble to protest against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

4. With this vote, the Obama Administration must feel like it is watching long-standing pillars of US policy collapsing around it. If I were the President, I’d be saying, with all due respect, what the *f* am I supposed to do now? Rip out the funding from the nice cultural folks of the UN, the same agency responsible for health and sex education, women’s equality in the developing world? Oh yes, and the agency that facilitates entry of some of our top tech companies into those markets?  Or ask Congress to waive the law, and face the waves of wrath that the Israel lobby has surely been stockpiling, just waiting to release their favorite, and most effective weapon yet again? As it turns out, the reaction was swift, and within hours the US has indeed indicated that it will cut funding, with a White House spokesperson saying the decision was ‘premature’.  When they say that, I always wonder – what else has to happen for the timing to be right?

5. The best part is the reaction of Israel’s officials, quoted in Ynet:

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy. “UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” he said.

The denials have begun. The Serbians called Kosovo a false state and a sin, and probably worse. When the tiny island of Nauru recognized Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, Georgia branded the recognition “a comedy.” Kosovo is pretty close to a recognized state now. Abkhazia is far from it. The common element is the reaction: when the sovereign state has to start issuing over-the-top denials it is an embarrassingly transparent sign of serious panic. It is the mark of a country that knows its policy is unsustainable and is trying desperately to cling to its position with glib spin as if (and Israelis really believe this) it’s all problem of Israel’s bad communication. The cutsie little phrase above makes me wince.

However, there’s another interpretation. Israel may doth protest, in order to cover up a de facto quiet acceptance. As I wrote back in August about Israel’s options regarding the statehood bid:

In this scenario, Israel takes no action to block development, democratization and economic stabilization of Palestine. That means allowing other countries to trade and engage with the new state, despite the political sensitivities, without threatening them diplomatically or economically. If that happens, Palestinian society might slowly stabilize, and the more it will have to lose – psychologically and materially. If that happens, Israel and the Palestinians may gather a few years of more fruitful – if grudging and unacknowledged – relations.

6. Finally, the Palestinian consequences. No, it will not change most people’s regular lives, although perhaps some of those World Heritage funds, if approved, could help boost investment and tourism in the relevant areas. It must certainly be seen as another Palestinian Authority victory, perhaps the first counterweight to the Shalit prisoner exchange deal, largely perceived as a Hamas victory. I believe it makes the Palestinian state look like more of a reality. It could boost support in the someday Security Council/General Assembly votes have to happen sometime, regarding Palestinian statehood.

UNESCO membership will not win the PA’s battle for statehood alone. But it is clearly a significant tactical victory.

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    1. Very clear and good analysis. I would add that the move to the UN is the PA’s decisive (and very long delayed) signal that the way to a “just and lasting peace” lies with international pressure on Israel (and USA), not on continued subservience by PA to Israel and USA.

      Israel will never bend to pressure from Palestine, because there is none. But it will bend to pressure from outside. The meat in a frying-pan will never cook until the fire is turned up (from outside the pan).

      Reply to Comment
    2. freedom

      Israel exists since 1948 , thus the negotiations of peace would NOT be fair without the existence of a palestinian state too, which might someday be able to bend some pressure on Israel as well.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pabelmont, thanks for a thoughtful comment. I wish it was so clear, but i’m not sure I agree, after years of being frustrated that the “international pressure” strategy doesn’t work – not so much on the peace process (b/c there hasn’t been much int’l pressure there until recently), but rather on the human rights issues, re: Gaza blockade/cast lead/Goldstone, etc. But this is a new test of that strategy indeed. We’ll see.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Matthew

      Dahlia: Even if the tide rises only mm, it’s still progress. When Hillary Clinton was running for Senate, Christopher Matthews mocked one of comments about “Palestine.” He said, “Where’s that?”

      His remark seems antiquated today.

      Reply to Comment
    5. AT

      1. So important cultural & educationalrograms are jeopardized so Abbas can gain brownie points. Great.

      2. No it clearly indicates the sentiments of many states who are eager to pretend they aren’t afraid of US

      3. Sure they can ask, but there won’t be any funding to support the request

      4. Obama is watching Abbas hand victory after victory to neo-cons. the UN is still an institution more despised than Congress, so cutting funds to UN will be popular win for right in US

      5. You really bringing Kosovo as an example? Kosovo is a state run by criminal human traffickers who are supported by US because of a big US military base in Kosovo there to protect Russian evading gas pipeline from Akhbakistan. The Palestinains don’t have anything similar to offer the West which is why no one with real power cares about Palestinain statehood

      6. Yes brownie points. but it isn’t gonna help Palestinians get one inch of their land.

      Reply to Comment
    6. @AT, indeed I am bringing in Kosovo. Here was my point, copied from above, which you don’t seem to have addressed: “The common element is the reaction: when the sovereign state has to start issuing over-the-top denials it is an embarrassingly transparent sign of serious panic. It is the mark of a country that knows its policy is unsustainable and is trying desperately to cling to its position with glib spin…”
      I am well aware of the highly tenuous nature of kosovo’s institutional viability. but there are enough similarities in terms of international dynamics and also in terms of dynamics btwn the sovereign and state-seekers that I completely stand by the comparison.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Helder Vieira

      AT, there’s an alternative view on the subject of your point 4.
      Yes, the american rightwing may feel tempted to take revenge and demand the application of the fund-stopping law. But it may also feel tempted to understand the significance of this debacle, which came on top of a direct american threat, a threat that was simply ignored by the UNESCO majority. The world is changing, and revenge might not be the smartest answer to that change.

      Reply to Comment
    8. RichardNYC

      “UNESCO itself took a major risk in approving Palestine’s entry, as the United States must cut off its financial contribution to the organization”
      –>Irresponsible, given its actual mandate
      “Thus in a symbolic sense, UNESCO erodes the exclusive province of the General Assembly and Security Council over sovereignty.”
      –>It isn’t endowed with that responsibility, which is exactly why this action erodes the legitimacy of international law. Why should anyone respect UN rules the UN itself ignores?
      –>just another instance where the “international law” enthusiasts for Palestine are exposed as intellectually dishonest hypocrites.

      Reply to Comment
    9. @Matthew, I completely agree. Good example.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Witty

      Congratulations, Palestinian Authority and Palestinian people.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Richard Witty

      I saw the interview of Amos Oz with Charlie Rose last night.

      In it Amos Oz stated that the process with the Palestinian petition for statehood should have been that the PA informed Israel diplomatically two days in advance of the petition hearing, and that Israel’s response was to be the first vote in the affirmative for Palestinian statehood.

      Its time.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Richard Witty

      Palestinians should not compromise on their day in court to contest 1948 and subsequent title claims, and if the land that their direct descendents is not occupied, they should be afforded the right to return to it.

      The maximalist form of “right of return” is untenable and an unjust remedy.

      But, the legally defined right of return is a success for Israel, a transformation of contested legal status to legally confident consented.

      Noone is confident that by a “reasonable man” test, title in much of Israel is perfected, consented.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Ben Israel,
      Upon leaving her post as Secretary of State, Condi Rice said that, even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she would do it 1000 times again. This would mean that the enabling resolution of Congress was fradulant, but that is a minor point, I suppose. Condi Rice sees peoples, not people. She said during office that it was better to kill suicide bombers in Iraq than in America. No matter that we made more bombers through the invasion.
      If there is a solution to this conflict it is within Israel and Palestine, not in America or elsewhere. The UNESCO vote recognizes that Palestinians exist in some sense beyond the occupation. While this is a troubling thought, I think we need to be troubled. Listening to standard Israeli/Palestinian speak I think myself in the Cold War again. I am not interested in bad guys. I’m interested in civilization finding away beyond its past.

      Reply to Comment
    14. I think the Palestine nation needs a State and will have a State. It is only up to us, the Israelis, to come to grip and support the Statehood. After all good goes two ways…

      Reply to Comment
    15. Borg

      Palestinian National Heritage sites
      Jerusalem Sbarros
      Park Hotel Netanya
      Dolphinarium Tel Aviv
      and many others

      Reply to Comment
    16. AT

      @Dahlia I read and understand your point and strongly disagree. The dynamics are not the same. The US & parts of EU supported Kosovo because it served imperial interests. The imperial interests of a Palestine state are not at all clear cut which is why mostly those who are antiUS empire voted for. As for the Israeli reaction, so yes we know Bibi is an idiot, what did you expect? some intelligent response? The response does not show the current government is running scared. BTW the Serbians aren’t scared either and continue to fight tooth and nail to undermine Kosovo. BTW, your Georgian analogy is also way off base 🙂

      @Helder You obviously aren’t paying much attention to US politics. The right wing here is willing to burn down the house to get back in power. If Obama even dared to ask them to refund UNESCO they would impeach him on charges of treason. Read today’s editorial of the WSJ which accuses Obama of seeing the uN as the place to solve all problems – which in right wing parlance is tantamount to calling him a traitor.

      Reply to Comment
    17. @AT, I have no disagreement with you that the international interests, and the alignment of alliances are different, but that is not my point, which maybe still isn’t clear. If Serbia wasn’t scared of/taking the secession/ independence of Kosovo seriously, why would it be going around on the mission of delegitimization, making that a major centerpiece of its foreign policy and expending large diplomatic and political resources? Why would Georgia go to war against its (other) secessionist region (S. Ossetia) if it wasn’t genuinely afraid that this region might succeed in its secession bid (and become independent, or be annexed to Russia – take your pick). It hardly matters at this point whether Serbia is scared of Kosovo’s secession/independence or not precisely b/c despite all the institutional failings you correctly point out, Kosovo has won widespread international legitimacy. Serbia can continue undermining it, but i’m willing to bet something significant that Kosovo will not revert to serbian sovereignty any time soon. That’s why those sovereign countries panic – when they see a real threat to their territorial or sovereign integrity.

      Reply to Comment