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Last week, Palestine officially joined UNESCO, the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organization, as its newest member. The vote approving Palestine’s membership was overwhelming; 107 member nations voted for the admission while only 14, led by the United States, voted against. The decision was both monumental and controversial as it not only represented the first instance of a UN body officially recognizing Palestine, but also resulted in the United States withholding its payment to UNESCO and Israel announcing it would speed up settlement construction as punishment for the decision.
Palestine’s effort to join UNESCO is part of a larger effort to seek legitimacy through the United Nations, since it doesn’t see negotiations with the current Israeli government as a realistic path toward establishing an independent Palestinian state. The United States and Israel fiercely oppose this strategy and both view direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine — brokered by the United States — as the only viable path toward peace. Consequently, the Obama administration called the admission of Palestine into UNESCO “regrettable” and “premature” and said that it undermined the international community’s shared goal of a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration also announced that the United States would discontinue its payments to the organization, payments that account for 22 percent of UNESCO’s entire budget.
The United States’ decision to cut its funding of UNESCO — based on legislation passed in the ‘90s denying U.S. funding to any UN body that recognized Palestine — is immature and irresponsible. UNESCO’s stated purpose is “to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law and human rights.” The sudden withdrawal of American funding will severely limit the organization in carrying out that purpose — a purpose that all Americans should support because it is vital to the United States’ interests.
Take, for example, the UNESCO program to improve literacy rates in the Afghan police, 80 percent of whom can’t read or write. This incredibly low literacy rate is a fundamental problem for the United States in our efforts to train an effective police and military force, which in turn can provide for the security of the Afghan people once the United States pulls out its forces. As one Canadian senior officer in the program told The Toronto Star, “If the army and the police can’t read maps or instructions it is very difficult to train them.” No shit, Sherlock. How can you carry out the “rule of law” when you can’t even read it? The invaluable program has already taught 200,000 members of the police to read and write, but the organization’s goal of making 600,000 members of the police literate now seems unlikely in the face of such a significant cut to its funding.
Furthermore, the notion that admitting Palestine into UNESCO somehow derails the entire Middle East peace process is complete and utter bullshit. This isn’t the UN Security Council we are talking about, or even admission into the UN General Assembly. This is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an organization that all human beings, regardless of nationality or politics, should support. The admission of Palestine could have represented the beginning of meaningful cooperation between Israel and Palestine in a forum that is supposed to be devoid of national politics and to support the rights and development of all humanity. The admission of Palestine into UNESCO alone would have absolutely no effect on future negotiations that take place between Israel and Palestine in the creation of a Palestinian state. This decision does not affect any of the issues that are impediments to peace such as rocket attacks, Jewish settlements or Palestinian refugees. However, Israel’s decision to speed up settlement construction as punishment for Palestine’s admission WILL have an effect on future negotiations and DOES create further impediments to reaching a peace agreement.
With their success at UNESCO, the Palestinians have indicated they intend to apply for membership in other international organizations including the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Trade Organization, all of which represent incredibly important interests for the United States. However, according to The New York Times, a “long list” of members of Congress that are backed by pro-Israel lobbies have made it clear that they will not back down from the law that denies funding to international organizations that recognize Palestine. Are we just going to sit in a corner and pout, isolating ourselves from the entire world because we childishly refuse to share a table with Palestine? This international isolation would severely hurt the U.S.’s claim to representing a fair and honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians and would be disastrous for both international cooperation and American interests at home and abroad.
Daily Nexus columnist Riley Schenck thinks it’s time to stop pouting and start problem solving.