Palestine state quest wins first victory in UNESCO vote

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Palestine won a first diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood on Wednesday when the UNESCO executive committee backed its bid to become a member of the cultural body with the rights of a state.

Palestine's Arab allies braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the committee's member states, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The Palestinian bid will now be submitted to the UNESCO general assembly at the end of the month for final approval.

The United States urged all delegates to vote "no" at the general assembly, with its ambassador to the Paris-based body, David Killion, saying that "granting the Palestinians full membership now in a specialised agency such as UNESCO is premature".

US Republican lawmaker Kay Granger, who chairs the key subcommittee that disburses US monies for diplomatic purposes said in a statement that she "will advocate for all funding to be cut off", if UNESCO accepted the Palestinians in as a state.

Killion said it was "inappropriate" for UNESCO to consider Palestine as a recognised member, while the United Nations Security Council was reviewing a Palestinian request for statehood recognition.

This request, which Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 23, will likely be voted on in the coming weeks.

The United States wields a veto on the Security Council, and has said it will veto any statehood bid before Palestine comes to an agreement with US ally Israel over their longstanding territorial standoff.

But no power has a veto on the UNESCO committee, and Washington's "no" vote in Paris was not enough to halt the motion. Palestinian leaders have said they are under enormous diplomatic pressure to abandon their candidacy.

Spain, however, said it would likely back the executive committee's recommendation.

"The government anticipates that it will vote in favour of this recommendation during the general assembly, if the vote takes place and no common European position has been reached," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Earlier in the day France, which abstained on the motion, said "it was not the time" for Palestine to pursue UNESCO backing, calling instead for a return to talks with Israel on a final peace settlement.

France has proposed a compromise measure whereby Palestine would be granted the status of an "observer state" at UN headquarters in New York.

Israeli on Wednesday lashed out at both the Palestinians and UNESCO for a move it said ran against the peace process.

"The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

UNESCO membership would not only be a diplomatic feather in Palestine's cap -- it would allow it to apply to classify its monuments as World Heritage Sites at a time when the heritage of much of the region is under dispute.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in 2010 that two Jewish holy sites in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs and Bethlehem's Tomb of Rachel, are to be Israeli national monuments.

His decision angered the Palestinians, who said it risked provoking a "holy war", and it led to international criticism and street clashes in Hebron.

Muslims call the Cave of the Patriarchs the Mosque of Ibrahim, their name for the Prophet Abraham. It his revered by both Jews and Muslims and Palestine plans to submit it for UNESCO heritage status.

They also wish to submit Jesus Christ's supposed birthplace in Bethlehem, and the ancient walled city of Jericho, one of the oldest ruins known to man.

To nail down their first victory, the Palestinians will need the backing of two thirds of UNESCO's 193 member states in a vote on October 25 in Paris. Until then, they retain their observer status.

In Ramallah, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki had spoken before the vote of the "enormous and unreasonable" diplomatic pressure being brought to bear to persuade his government to withdraw the bid.

© 2011 AFP

1 Comment To This Article

  • fred posted:

    on 6th October 2011, 10:14:15 - Reply

    This is good news, no? At least from the eyes of those who want peace in the middle east.

    My rational: it is like convincing a drug dealing gang member to play in a basketball game at a youth center. As the Palestinians become more of an actual member of the international community instead of an outcast, they will have to start assuming the responsibilities that go with that position. If they want their monuments recognized, then they are by proxy recognizing the monuments of other nations, including Israel.

    It would be nice if they had a dialogue with Israel but everyone knows that won't happen. Sometimes, change has to happen from the outside in and this is a step towards the Palestinians having an identity other than 'anti-Israel' (i realize they have always had a personal identity but it has been fractured, not cohesive, much like Italy).