The Multilateralist

Israel, UNESCO, and the United States

Israel, UNESCO, and the United States

The United States is about to lose its vote in UNESCO, the UN organization devoted to educational and cultural issues. Two years ago, UNESCO members voted to welcome Palestine as a member. Preexisting U.S. legislation required that the United States cease funding the organization, and Washington has now accumulated sufficient back dues to lose its voting privileges. In today’s Washington Post, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer argues that Congress desperately needs to alter the legislation:

Without U.S. support, programs that advance U.S. security will wither…When the Bush administration rejoined UNESCO in 2003, reversing a Cold War-era departure, it recognized that the organization could help fight extremism in the post-9/11 world. Indeed, it provided literacy classes for Afghan police. UNESCO leads the global fight against illiteracy. First lady Laura Bush served as the UNESCO honorary ambassador for its Decade of Literacy. In early 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a UNESCO program promoting education for women and girls, widely understood to advance long-term economic and social development. On Dec.?10, 2012, UNESCO launched the Malala Fund for Girls Education, deepening its commitment to provide all girls access to school by 2015. 

Even more ambitiously, however, Brimmer argues that Israel should support amending the legislation:

Our decades-old laws may have been an effort to stand with Israel, but Israel will be hurt by the U.S. absence at UNESCO. U.S. officials have worked hard to help forestall or mitigate anti-Israeli actions in international bodies. When controversial Holy Land heritage issues are discussed at UNESCO next year, a non-voting United States will be less able to help its ally. Meanwhile, the UNESCO worldwide Holocaust and anti-genocide education programs will wither without U.S. support. Israelis should welcome an updated approach that restores the U.S. vote and strong voice in international organizations.

I doubt this view will be persuasive in Israel. Even with a vote, the United States hasn’t prevented UNESCO from passing resolutions critical of Israel.  In any case, UNESCO is just one part of a much broader strategy of keeping Palestine for achieving full international recognition and participating as an equal in international organizations. Whatever small cost there may be to a U.S. absence from that organization is more than compensated for if–and it’s a big "if"–the UNESCO example deters other multilateral bodies from offering Palestine full membership. At the very top of that list is the International Criminal Court, which could in theory investigate Israeli settlement activities on Palestinian territory.