Published October 31, 2011
PARIS – Palestine became a full member of the U.N. cultural and educational agency Monday, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.
U.S. lawmakers had threatened to withhold roughly $80 million in annual funding to UNESCO if it approved Palestinian membership. The United States provides about 22 percent of UNESCO's funding.
Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 UNESCO member delegations present.
"Long Live Palestine!" shouted one delegate, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO's General Conference.
While the vote has large symbolic meaning, the issue of borders of an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.
Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the U.S. has said it will veto it unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO and other U.N. bodies.
Monday's vote is definitive. The membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.
The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Monday's vote will "complicate" U.S. efforts to support the agency. The United States voted against the measure.
Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy.
"UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction," he said. "They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence."
"They've forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week called UNESCO's deliberation "inexplicable," saying discussion of Palestinian membership in international organizations couldn't replace negotiations with Israel as a fast-track toward Palestinian independence.