PARIS — Palestine became a full member of UNESCO on Monday in a highly divisive breakthrough that will cost the agency a fifth of its budget and that the U.S. and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.
Soon after the vote, the United States cut funding to the organization because of a U.S. law that bars funding an organization that has Palestine as a member before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.
That decision will have an immediate effect: The United States won’t make a $60 million payment scheduled for November, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
UNESCO depends heavily on U.S. funding – Washington provides 22 percent of its budget or about $80 million a year – but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under President George W. Bush.
Monday’s vote is a grand symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it alone won’t make Palestine into a state. The issues of borders for an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.
Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 UNESCO member delegations present. In a surprise, France voted “yes” – and the room erupted in cheers and applause – while the “no” votes included the United States, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.
“Long live Palestine!” someone shouted in the hall, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO’s General Conference.
Even if the vote’s impact isn’t felt right away in the Mideast, it will be quickly felt at UNESCO, which protects historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy, access to schooling for girls and cultural understanding, but it also has in the past been a forum for anti-Israel sentiment.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova welcomed the decision, but said that she worried it could put the agency in a precarious position.
“It is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the organization,” said Bokova, who has led a drive to reform the institution. “I am worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I am worried for the stability of its budget.”
Before the State Department announcement, White House spokesman Jay Carney called UNESCO’s decision “premature” and said it undermines the international community’s goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. He called it a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Democrats and Republicans in Washington also criticized the vote. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “Today’s reckless action by UNESCO is anti-Israel and anti-peace.”
Aside from the U.S. funding cut, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it “will consider its further … cooperation with the organization” after Monday’s vote.
Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the U.S. has pledged a veto unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO. All the efforts are part of a broader push by the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas for greater international recognition in recent years.
“Joy fills my heart. This is really an historic moment,” said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki. “We hope that today’s victory at UNESCO marks but a beginning. Our admission to UNESCO is not an alternative, is no substitute for something else.”
In the Gaza Strip, Abbas’ rival, the militant Hamas government, also praised the UNESCO decision, saying that Hamas’ confrontational approach toward Israel was behind the vote.
“It also indicates that the Palestinian cause is getting more support while American policy is regressing,” said Hamas official Salah Bardawil.
UNESCO, like other U.N. agencies, is a part of the world body but has separate membership procedures and can make its own decisions about which countries belong. Full U.N. membership is not required for membership in many of the U.N. agencies.
Monday’s vote is definitive, and the membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO’s founding charter.
Israel’s outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said before the vote that if it passed, Israel should cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority. It was not clear whether he was voicing an individual opinion or government policy. He has a history of making comments embarrassing to the prime minister.
In an address to parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly criticized the Palestinians move.
“Unfortunately, the Palestinians continue to refuse to negotiate with us. Instead of sitting around the negotiating table, they have decided to form an alliance with Hamas and take unilateral steps at the U.N., including today,” Netanyahu said. He warned his government would “not sit quietly.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it is up to member states “to ensure the United Nations system as a whole a consistent political and financial support.”
“As such, we will need to work on tactical solutions to preserve UNESCO’s financial resources,” he said. He urged a negotiated solution to Mideast peace.
Ghasan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, urged the United States to keep UNESCO funding.
“We look at this vote as especially important because part of our battle with the Israeli occupation is about the occupation attempts to erase the Palestinian history or Judaizing it. The UNESCO vote will help us to maintain the Palestinian traditional heritage,” he said.
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy. “They’ve forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization,” he said.
“UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” he said. “They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence.”
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, Edith Lederer at the United Nations, Joe Federman in Jerusalem contributed.