Palestinians join UNESCO – symbolic step to statehood?

The emotional victory may not be a game-changer, but to consider it merely symbolic is missing deep potential consequences of full acceptance into a UN club.

This post has been updated, 31 October, 8:40pm

The Palestinian Authority won a major victory on Monday by being accepted to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The acceptance is a critical moment, not so much because it will really affect the lives of most Palestinians, but for what it says about the unfolding international attitudes and policy, and for Palestine and Israel. Here are a few possible implications.

1. UNESCO itself took a major risk in approving Palestine’s entry, as the United States must cut off its financial contribution to the organization  if Palestine joins, according to a long-standing law – 15 years old, to be exact. That’s 22% of the organization’s budget. Facing down this risk and taking the leap is a bold move for UNESCO.

But it also ultimately tells the world that there are other ways to legitimize Palestine even if the hamstrung Security Council prevents it from winning the big prize of UN membership.  Thus in a symbolic sense, UNESCO erodes the exclusive province of the General Assembly and Security Council over sovereignty.

2. UNESCO not only took a bold stand, but it did so with a ringing and enthusiastic endorsement: The number of votes for admitting Palestine dwarfed the other votes – at 107, it was double the number of those who abstained (52) and more than seven times higher than the votes against (14). At the critical moment, a huge cheer went up among the delegates, reported observers, supporting the results.This emphasizes clearly where world sentiment lies.

3. While it’s easy to dismiss the vote as “merely” symbolic, there is nothing insignificant about the fact that Palestine can now request World Heritage status for holy sites in Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and possibly other areas of religious and historical significance. This will undoubtedly further entrench the sense of Palestine’s globally recognized heritage and history, and deepen its claim to statehood. Since the claim to Palestinian self-determination and statehood, has already been recognized by both the UN and Israel itself, it becomes increasingly feeble to protest against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

4. With this vote, the Obama Administration must feel like it is watching long-standing pillars of US policy collapsing around it. If I were the President, I’d be saying, with all due respect, what the *f* am I supposed to do now? Rip out the funding from the nice cultural folks of the UN, the same agency responsible for health and sex education, women’s equality in the developing world? Oh yes, and the agency that facilitates entry of some of our top tech companies into those markets?  Or ask Congress to waive the law, and face the waves of wrath that the Israel lobby has surely been stockpiling, just waiting to release their favorite, and most effective weapon yet again? As it turns out, the reaction was swift, and within hours the US has indeed indicated that it will cut funding, with a White House spokesperson saying the decision was ‘premature’.  When they say that, I always wonder – what else has to happen for the timing to be right?

5. The best part is the reaction of Israel’s officials, quoted in Ynet:

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy. “UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” he said.

The denials have begun. The Serbians called Kosovo a false state and a sin, and probably worse. When the tiny island of Nauru recognized Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, Georgia branded the recognition “a comedy.” Kosovo is pretty close to a recognized state now. Abkhazia is far from it. The common element is the reaction: when the sovereign state has to start issuing over-the-top denials it is an embarrassingly transparent sign of serious panic. It is the mark of a country that knows its policy is unsustainable and is trying desperately to cling to its position with glib spin as if (and Israelis really believe this) it’s all problem of Israel’s bad communication. The cutsie little phrase above makes me wince.

However, there’s another interpretation. Israel may doth protest, in order to cover up a de facto quiet acceptance. As I wrote back in August about Israel’s options regarding the statehood bid:

In this scenario, Israel takes no action to block development, democratization and economic stabilization of Palestine. That means allowing other countries to trade and engage with the new state, despite the political sensitivities, without threatening them diplomatically or economically. If that happens, Palestinian society might slowly stabilize, and the more it will have to lose – psychologically and materially. If that happens, Israel and the Palestinians may gather a few years of more fruitful – if grudging and unacknowledged – relations.

6. Finally, the Palestinian consequences. No, it will not change most people’s regular lives, although perhaps some of those World Heritage funds, if approved, could help boost investment and tourism in the relevant areas. It must certainly be seen as another Palestinian Authority victory, perhaps the first counterweight to the Shalit prisoner exchange deal, largely perceived as a Hamas victory. I believe it makes the Palestinian state look like more of a reality. It could boost support in the someday Security Council/General Assembly votes have to happen sometime, regarding Palestinian statehood.

UNESCO membership will not win the PA’s battle for statehood alone. But it is clearly a significant tactical victory.