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Palestinian Envoy: UNESCO Membership Opens Doors to Other U.N. Agencies

It's not just UNESCO: The Palestinians' top envoy in Geneva said Tuesday he believes that joining the U.N. agency for culture, education and science will "open the door" to joining 16 other U.N. agencies within weeks.

Ibrahim Khraishi, the top Palestinian envoy at the U.N. in Geneva, told The Associated Press that Palestinian diplomats are now planning to capitalize on Monday's landslide vote to allow the Palestinians into UNESCO by preparing papers to join the other U.N. agencies and a variety of other international organizations.

"Now we are studying when we are going to move for full membership on the other U.N. agencies," Khraishi said. "It's our target for (us to join) the international organizations and the U.N. agencies."

He said the UNESCO vote sets a precedent to allowing such broad memberships.

"We are working on it, one by one," he said. "Because it's now precedent that we are a full member in one of the biggest and one of the most important U.N. agencies, UNESCO. So it will open the door for us now to go further in our efforts to join other U.N. agencies."

In Jerusalem, Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the Palestinian strategy not only undermined the need for peace talks, but also could cause grave damage to the workings of the United Nations. He said that by joining more U.N. bodies, the Palestinians would try to "hijack" these committees and press an anti-Israel agenda. "There will be huge collateral damage for the working of international institutions," he said.

The Obama administration cut off funding to UNESCO after Monday's vote, and U.S. officials warned of a "cascade" effect at other U.N. bodies that might follow UNESCO's lead.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated concerns about UNESCO's financial situation Tuesday and said it's up to the 193 U.N. member states "to ensure that all the United Nations agencies receive political and financial support."

Asked whether the U.S. government can find a way around the UNESCO financing ban, Ban said, "I hope they will. I hope they will."

He said he has discussed the issue with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials in the Obama administration.

"I don't think it is a policy of the U.S. Government," Ban said, adding that the Obama administration supports UNESCO and the Middle East peace process, and the financial ban is a result of Congressional legislation

The Palestinians have triggered a long-standing congressional ban on U.S. funding to U.N. bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

Joining UNESCO, for example, could give the Palestinians an advantage in joining the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization, whose rules say membership is "equally open" to those already a member of other U.N. specialized agencies.

But it's not clear whether that means membership is automatic and Geneva-based WIPO spokeswoman Samar Shamoon had no comment on the matter Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Esther Brimmer emphasized Monday that Palestinian membership in WIPO "could have serious implications for U.S. leadership in this organization" which supports global infrastructure helping U.S. companies protect their business interests around the world, according to State Department briefing notes.

"The United States is a leading global voice on issues related to patent, copyright, and trademark matters, and should the U.S. be unable to provide its contributions to WIPO, the impact of that voice could be significantly diminished," the U.S. agency said.

Fadela Chaib, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, another Geneva-based U.N. agency, said any nation that is part of the U.N. can join. For those that are not part, she said, the annual World Health Assembly can approve membership if a written request is received at least 30 days beforehand. A simple majority of countries present and voting at the assembly is sufficient.

Cutting U.S. funding for WHO would hurt, said Chaib.

"Of course we need it. The U.S. funding is quite important, I guess for all the U.N. organizations," Chaib told reporters. "It's a vital funding need for WHO."

She wasn't immediately able to say how much Washington gives the global health agency each year.