Palestine’s UNESCO Membership and Its Discontents

UNESCO Palestine
By Andrea Dessi and Jørgen Jensehaugen

On 31 October, a clear majority of UNESCO members voted to welcome Palestine as a full member in the UN body. As a result both UNESCO and the Palestinians are punished hard by the US and Israel. Why this anger? And what next for Palestine’s UN membership bid? The vote was held in Paris where the headquarters of the UNESCO is located. Only 173 out of the 194 member states of the UN body came to the vote. Of these, a clear majority of 107 voted in favor – amongst them France, Spain and  heavyweights Brazil, Russia, China, and India – 14 voted against (Israel, US and Germany) and 52 abstained. This was a clear victory for the Palestinian Authority (PA) which was thus granted the majority needed to become a full member of the UN organization. 

UNESCO is now the first UN body to officially grant Palestine full membership status since Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA and leader of Al-Fatah, applied for membership in the United Nations two months ago.

The UNESCO vote is the first of what will likely be a long series of similar Palestinian membership bids within the UN system. Bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are expected to follow, but the real prize the Palestinian’s are pursuing is full membership in the UN in New York.

The PA’s application for UN membership was presented to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 23 September but in order for Palestine to be recognized as a state they must first gather nine out fifteen votes (and no vetoes) in the council. The Palestinian leadership appeared to be counting on a more favorable support from members of the EU, and many observers were indeed hoping for a more active involvement of the EU in resolving the current stalemate in negotiations. This scenario appears now highly unlikely given Europe’s deep divisions on the topic of Palestinian membership in the UN. Indeed, it is is highly unlikely that they will gather the necessary votes, given that both France and Britain have recently announced their intention to abstain and the PA appears thus far to have gathered only eight endorsements from other UNSC members.

In the event that the PA does gather the necessary nine votes, the US has already declared its intention to veto the resolution thus further limiting Palestine’s chances of admission. The Palestinians have other options however, including going to the UN General Assembly for an upgrade to the status of “observer state”. According to the PA’s foreign minister such an upgrade would not be deemed enough and the Palestinian leadership would prefer repeating the process until their request is approved by the UNSC. Since the Palestinians are a vote short in the Security Council, it is unclear whether the PA will still be willing to go to a vote, especially considering that the United States will use its veto power even if that last vote could be secured. This would be the second such US veto in less than a year to block a Palestinian resolution in the UNSC.

But let us return to the UNESCO vote. The UN body is probably best known for its mandate to put sites on the world heritage list, and while this sounds innocent enough, the reactions from the US and Israel make it seem as if this is not the case.

Both countries have fought hard against what they consider Palestinian “unilateralism” in going to the UN. Israel and the US have warned of possible punishments, and in that sense one could say that the Palestinians have gotten what was coming their way. But such a harsh reaction begs further explanation.

Membership, therefore no membership fee

The US was the quickest to react. Just hours after the vote it was made clear that the US would no longer pay its membership fee to UNESCO. The US pays for 22 per cent of UNESCOs annual budget, so this has highly dramatic economic consequences for the UN body. In a strange attempt at political maneuvering the State Department spokeswomen said that the US still wishes to be an active member in an organization they view as important. Inherent here is a historical and diplomatic absurdity. President Obama, who profiles himself as a conciliatory president, is withdrawing money from an organization which the pronounced anti-UN President George W. Bush made the US a member of for the first time since the mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan pulled the US out. Obama, however, still wants the US to be active member in UNESCO, just not a paying member.

Israel has now followed suit, freezing its annual contributions (USD$2 million) to the organization. This is but one of the punitive measured adopted by the Netanyahu government and Israel has now declared that settlement construction will be accelerated. True to its word, the Israeli government has recently approved 2000 new housing units in and around East Jerusalem. A further measure will be the holding back of Palestinian tax revenues which Israel collects on behalf of the PA. These revenues total USD$100 million per month, equivalent to half of the PA’s domestic revenue base, and are regularly used to pay for the salaries of tens of thousands of public employees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These Israeli actions have been taken to pressure the Palestinians away from the UN and back to the negotiation table, something the Palestinians in turn are refusing to do.

Political consequences        

These reactions seem over the top. In a slightly caricatured manner one could say that the only consequence of Palestine’s membership in UNESCO is that the church of nativity in Bethlehem can finally get a place on the list of world heritage sights. But this is not the reason why the US and Israel have reacted with such stern measures. In the American case it must be mentioned that the freezing of its UNESCO contributions was practically an automatic reaction based on laws, from 1990 and 1994, which state that the US must withhold money to any UN organizations that accepts Palestine as a member state without it first signing a peace treaty with Israel. While it has been reported that Obama did try to find a way to work around these laws, one must wonder to what extent his administration was truly willing to invest in this political fight given the fast approaching 2012 presidential elections.

Explanations for these extreme reactions are to be found in the fact that Israel and the US dislike the Palestinian UN approach so much that they have a strong need to react immediately and with force. By taking a clear and adverse stance on the issue of UNESCO membership they are hoping to a send a clear signal, to both the Palestinians and UN member states that the process must stop at UNESCO. The Palestinians, however, are standing firm and have consistently refused to resume negotiations with Israel until the latter agrees to clear terms of reference for the peace process and halts settlement construction on Palestinian land. This strategy reflects the Palestinian claim that the UN must become the central venue for the conduct of negotiations and that these must be solidly based on past UN resolutions and international law. The Palestinians are thus pushing for what may be termed a “(re)internationalization” of the conflict in the hope that a stronger UN role will bring greater accountability for Israel’s violations of international law and its all too hesitant approach to the professed end goal of viable two-state solution to the conflict. 

The problem for Israel and the US is that the Palestinian leadership has invested too much political capital in the UN track to be able to stop now. The political victory in Paris, and ironically, the Israeli reaction, has shown that the UN approach can bring real political gains. The problem for the Palestinians, on the other hand, is that this, while undoubtedly significant, is in essence a symbolic victory. Membership in UNESCO does not alter the reality on the ground. The fact that the church of nativity may become a world heritage site does not ultimately alter the fact that 500,000 Israeli settlers will continue to live in the occupied West Bank.


Jørgen Jensehaugen, PhD candidate in History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.


15 November 2011