Mahmoud Abbas' obstinacy surely will be encouraged by UNESCO's grant of full membership to Palestine even before a state by that name is actually created. While the Palestinians—without a final peace agreement with Israel—await U.N. Security Council action on their application for admission to the world body, they are broadening their outreach among a range of U.N.-affiliated international organizations to gain recognition of their non-existent state.
The Palestinian Authority president’s strategy of ignoring Israel was set forth in his New York Times op-ed six months ago, when he argued that U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state would enhance his bargaining position in negotiations with Israel.
Abbas, however, abandoned all negotiations with Israel more than a year ago, snubbing not only Prime Minister Netanyahu, but also President Obama, who hosted the resumption of direct talks in Washington.
Pursuing his U.N. gambit, Abbas continues to disregard both leaders. Why hassle with painstaking peace process details when voting blocs in the UN system offer Palestinians a blank check, as long as the veto option, unique to the UN Security Council, is not in play.
UNESCO membership, however inevitable, does not advance the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It also threatens to bring irreparable harm to an important global organization that depends on U.S. government contributions.
The 107 countries that voted in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO and the 52 that abstained – in essence, as good as affirmative votes – are complicit in this reckless approach. Each of the 159 governments knew the consequences: an end to critical American support, some 22 percent of the UNESCO budget, and no positive contribution towards achieving the peace that both Israelis and Palestinians so desire.
Indeed, even as UNESCO members voted in Paris, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired another 20 rockets and missiles into southern Israel. The latest assault came just days after Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas five years ago, was returned to Israel in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had committed the most horrific terror attacks.
If Gaza rulers continue to operate independently of the PA even in the face of the unity agreement Abbas signed with Hamas last May, then what land of a future Palestinian state does he control? That question, as well as final borders, security and other issues can only be determined through direct peace negotiations with Israel, not in the conference halls of UN agencies.
In addition, as the Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh, points out, textbooks currently used in Palestinian schools contravene UNESCO rules for becoming a full member. In those books Jews and Israelis are demonized, Jewish holy places are not identified, and Israel is absent from the maps and listings of countries in the region. The IMPACT-SE study that confirmed this is an updated version of the report, Palestinian Textbooks: From Arafat to Abbas and Hamas, jointly produced with AJC three years ago.
Looking ahead to their bid for UN membership, the Palestinians presently do not have the 9 votes they need, though several of the15 Council members are still undecided. So far, it looks as though the U.S. will be able to avoid using its veto, which it has promised to wield if needed because Washington firmly agrees that a Palestinian state must be produced in Israeli-Palestinian talks on a permanent peace accord.
At some point, if Abbas continues on his U.N. path, members of Congress will step up their questioning of U.S. funding of other U.N. agencies, should they follow UNESCO in admitting Palestine, and possibly cut the funding of the Palestinian Authority itself.
If American generosity and genuine concern for Arab-Israeli peace are not fully appreciated, Washington may need to reconsider its role.
For decades the U.S. has been central to all Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Surely, a diminished American role can’t be something any Palestinian leader would desire. Or, does Abbas simply not care anymore?
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.