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The Middle East Channel

Five comments on Palestine joining UNESCO

So the UNESCO’s general conference has voted to admit Palestine as a member. The U.S. government has made good on its Congressionally-mandated commitment to withhold its dues payments to UNESCO. Israel has come up with a cute PR line (UNESCO is supposed to be about science, not science fiction), Europe is hopelessly split — oh, and ...

AFP/ Getty images
AFP/ Getty images

So the UNESCO’s general conference has voted to admit Palestine as a member. The U.S. government has made good on its Congressionally-mandated commitment to withhold its dues payments to UNESCO. Israel has come up with a cute PR line (UNESCO is supposed to be about science, not science fiction), Europe is hopelessly split — oh, and the Palestinian territories are still occupied.

Nevertheless, there are a few signposts for what might be coming down the pike worth paying attention to after today’s vote:

1. An emerging Palestinian strategy? 2011 has witnessed the closest thing in almost 20 years to a new Palestinian approach to realizing statehood alongside Israel. The PLO leadership has refused to resume endlessly schlepped out negotiations as long as settlements continue to expand, has concluded a reconciliation agreement with Hamas (albeit one barely implemented), and has utilized the institutions of the international community– the U.N. Security Council, and today UNESCO — to assert claims to statehood in the face of unwavering U.S. opposition. And yet, it is still rather hard to discern how one gets from these Palestinian moves to actual freedom, de-occupation, and statehood. When pushed, the Palestinians leading this effort still seem to hope that their diplomatic surge will lead to a recalculation in Jerusalem or Washington, or both. What they have done so far is to prioritize symbolism over sanctions — the Palestinians are pursuing largely symbolic gains in the international arena, and asking their supporters to vote with Palestine at U.N. bodies rather than asking them to take punitive measures in response to Israeli denial of their freedom. That is probably an easier ask –and intriguingly it probably creates more problems for the U.S. (as Israel’s unquestioning protector-in-chief) than for Israel itself.

So where we are now? It is also a way for the PLO/Fatah leadership to attempt to build domestic support without a return to ill-advised armed resistance, but also without pushing either popular nonviolent struggle or joining civil society campaigns to sanction Israel. So far, it is a half-baked strategy — focusing on symbolic wins and generating headaches in the diplomatic arena for ignoring Palestine (there are a host of U.N. agencies that the Palestinians might join in addition to UNESCO that will create a plethora of problems, in particular for the U.S., if it maintains its current response posture).

Two points should not be lost following today’s vote: First, this Palestinian effort is thoroughly two-statist in its orientation and it is therefore ludicrous to criticize it as somehow being against the two-state solution or an attack on Israel’s very existence; secondly, if, as can be anticipated, symbolic gains fail to deliver de-occupation and freedom, then eventually the Palestinian strategy will migrate to being sanctions-oriented. American and Israeli retaliatory measures may hasten that development.

2. What next at the U.N.? The Palestinian application for U.N. membership is, of course, still under discussion at the U.N. Security Council. That vote might take place by mid-November, though it could be further delayed. The Palestinian membership bid requires nine out of the 15 Security Council votes — and no vetoes — in order to succeed. In other words, it is guaranteed not to pass given the U.S. guarantee of a veto. So the remaining question at this stage becomes whether the Palestinians will muster enough votes (nine) to necessitate that veto, and what they will do once membership is rejected.

If one were to extrapolate the Security Council vote from today’s UNESCO vote, then one comes out with the following result: 9 in favor (China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, France, Lebanon, Gabon, and Nigeria); 2 against (U.S. and Germany), and 4 abstentions (UK, Portugal, Bosnia, and Colombia). If that were replicated in the UNSC, then the U.S. veto would come into play. However, if the Palestinians lose just one vote from the"yes" column then America is spared from wielding the veto (it is worth remembering that America, anyway, will be blamed for applying pressure to achieve the no’s and abstentions).

However, some of those yes votes may go wobbly somewhere between Paris and Turtle Bay,  in particular the French themselves, as France has stated that it would support Palestine at the UNGA but not at the UNSC. The Palestinians will then have to decide whether to pursue an upgrade of their status to a state, but one that is an observer or non-member at the U.N. General Assembly. Such a move by the PLO is considered likely, and a victory at the UNGA is guaranteed. But it would represent a more assertive and challenging move than anything undertaken to date (as it accords possible leverage that falls more into the sanctions than symbolism category, such as strengthening Palestine’s claim to International Criminal Court jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territories).

The Palestinians are also expected to pursue membership at a host of other U.N. bodies. However, if the U.S. continues to withhold its funding from any and every institution according Palestine membership, then one might expect a degree of attrition on the part of member countries voting for Palestine and that eventually the Palestinians might start getting blamed as much as the U.S. for the predictable consequences of their actions. Should they nevertheless continue to pursue this U.N. diplomatic track then there is a relatively simple answer to the de-funding question: namely, for the Gulf states to step up and fill the gaps created by American de-funding. America’s now withheld UNESCO contribution is $60 million.

That really is chump change for the GCC counties, especially when they are spending tens of billions on purchasing American weapons (Saudi Arabia alone has ordered $60 billion of U.S. arms ).

3. Israel in a sticky spot? Israel’s own defense minister, Ehud Barak, predicted that a "diplomatic tsunami" would face Israel surrounding the Palestinian U.N. bid if Israel failed to launch a substantial peace effort. It is a potential Achilles heel for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu — that on his watch, Israel is facing an unprecedented degree of diplomatic isolation in response to the rejectionist policies of his government. It is a central theme for opposition leader Tzipi Livni in her attacks on the PM. It is true that in today’s UNESCO decision a mere 13 of the 173 countries voted in line with Israel in opposing Palestinian membership. And even that baker’s dozen included four Pacific island states.

Israel’s leader, however, will take comfort from a few directions. Looking at it from the angle of how many countries did not vote in favor of Palestinian membership (in other words, adding the abstentions to the no’s) one reaches a tally of 66. Netanyahu all along has claimed that Israel’s best performance at the U.N. would be a moral minority, and this vote would seem to hit that mark. Less tasteful is that being moral seems to correlate with being white and Western from the vantage point of Israel’s leader.  Netanyahu will no doubt be able to shrug off the UNESCO vote as not being a big deal, especially with the U.N. Security Council numbers stacking up nicely for Israel , and with the ever-available option for Israel of clinging onto America’s coattails at the U.N.

The bottom line for Netanyahu is that as long as the Palestinians remain faithful to their approach of symbolic achievements rather than actual sanctions, Netanyahu can probably weather the domestic political fallout.  

4. America marginalizes itself in the diplomatic arena (again). As suggested previously, the current unraveling of the old peace process paradigm is probably more of a headache for America than it is for Israel right now. America’s objections to the Palestinian move ring hollow across much of the world, and especially the strategically vital Middle East region. Its withholding of UN payments in response is nothing short of a combination of the absurd and the vindictive. As former Senator Tim Wirth has pointed out this will be sapping to America’s soft power capacity.  And if it continues, there may be more practical consequences, for instance, in regards to loss of American influence at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

When it comes to Israel, most congressional Democrats dress up as right-wing Republicans, not just for Halloween but every day of the year. Despite the urgings of centrists groups in the Jewish pro-Israel community, such as J Street or Americans for Peace Now, that is unlikely to change anytime soon, and Congress can be relied on to further reduces America’s global diplomatic footprint and advance the cause of American decline. Perhaps at some stage presidential waivers will be worked into legislation, designed to tempt the president into doing the responsible thing from an American interest perspective and to then attack him for so doing (as being insufficiently pro-Israel, of course).

When it comes to U.N. sanctions, all of this will be unhelpful, maddening, and occasionally even debilitating for the U.S. and for the world. Yet it will also likely be manageable for America in the overall scheme of things. However, if America’s entire approach to the region continues to be too overwhelmingly Israel-centric then the costs might stack up in ways that generate both real resentment toward the Israel relationship and calls for a rethink in certain quarters (look to the Pentagon, for instance, if the U.S. ends up over-mediating its relations with Egypt, Turkey, and other key actors via the Israel prism).

U.S. government agencies will find various ways to gently suggest that this dynamic is not good — the State Department has, for instance, conveneda meeting of U.S. companies potentially impacted by these U.N. developments –but that will be no match for congressional political hardball.

5. Europe — strength in division? Europe split down the line in today’s votes: 11 in favor, 11 abstaining, and five voting no — which kind of explains why Europe is unlikely to step into the void created by America’s inability to lead on Israel/Palestine. If Europe continues to be unable to operate as a bloc at the U.N. on Israel/Palestine issues, it will unsurprisingly have little negotiating leverage with either party, and its role within the Quartet will also be limited, giving greater free reign to Quartet envoy Tony Blair. There are two caveats to this. Firstly, Europe occasionally manages to coalesce around constructive positions or interventions, such as the reports issued jointly by European missions to the region regarding Jerusalem. Finally, division might be utilized with ad-hoc coalitions being formed to work more intensely with one side or the other. The Scandinavians, for instance, might engage in a more strategic dialogue with the Palestinians.

(And a final note of real minutiae, on Sweden’s vote at UNESCO — a no, which has many scratching their heads given the strategic smarts that tend to characterize Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. From a cursory investigation, it seems that UNESCO issues fall under the minister of education in Sweden, who is to the right within Swedish coalition politics and might well have taken the lead in making this call).

And what are the implications for the peace process…? Only joking, there is no peace process.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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