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Vote for Palestine

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011 T+T-
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee at Ramallah in the West Bank on September 29.-NASSER SHIYOUKHI/AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee at Ramallah in the West Bank on September 29.-NASSER SHIYOUKHI/AP

Palestine gets full UNESCO membership despite stiff opposition from the United States.

THE overwhelming endorsement by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for the recognition of Palestine as a full member is a strong signal by the international community to Israel and its main patron, the United States, that Palestinian statehood is now only a matter of time. UNESCO is the first U.N. agency to admit Palestine as a full member. This diplomatic victory has come less than two months after Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas' formal application for full membership in the U.N. on September 13.

The vote on October 31 in Paris, which upgraded Palestine's status from observer to full member, took place despite immense pressure from Washington. The European Union (E.U.) also tried to stall the Palestinian bid for full membership by offering limited membership on UNESCO's executive committee along with funds to renovate the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

A Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official was quoted as saying that the E.U. was trying to tempt us with money to buy our principles. Sabri Saidam, adviser to President Abbas, said the UNESCO vote was a rehearsal for the big battle for full U.N. membership. The U.N. Security Council is due to vote on the issue of full membership in the middle of November.

As many as 107 countries, making up two-thirds of UNESCO's membership, voted in favour of Palestine. China, Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil were among them. This vote will erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people, Palestinian Foreign Minster Riyadh al Malki said after the vote. Many of Washington's European allies, such as France and Belgium, also voted in Palestine's favour. Among the 14 countries that opposed the entry of Palestine were the four tiny Pacific Ocean nations of Samoa, Palau, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, which are dependent on American largesse for their survival.

A surprise vote against Palestine was that of Sweden. Until the late 1980s, Sweden was a pillar of support for liberation movements worldwide, playing host to leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The right-wing government in Sweden today seems to be blindly following the U.S. lead on key foreign policy issues. Sweden chose to abstain on the recent U.N. vote condemning the U.S. for its illegal blockade of Cuba despite the overwhelming majority in the U.N. once again voting in favour of Cuba. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, may have a point when he claims that the current government in Sweden is under the sway of Washington. Assange has said that he fears that he may be deported to the U.S. once he is extradited to Sweden.

Australia, Canada and Germany also voted against Palestine's admission. Australian and Canadian foreign policies have for many years supported U.S. foreign policy initiatives faithfully. Germany does occasionally differ with the U.S. It refused to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military assault on Libya. But on Israel, successive German governments, racked by the collective guilty conscience relating to the country's treatment of Jews during the Second World War, have blindly supported Israel.

Immediately after Palestine was admitted into UNESCO, the Barack Obama administration said that the U.S. was withdrawing from the organisation and cutting off funding completely. The U.S. was supposed to contribute $80 million this year, which is about one-fifth of the organisation's budget. The U.S. said it was bound by a 1994 law that forbids financial ties with any U.N. agency that gives Palestine full membership before an Israel-Palestine peace deal is reached. Washington's stand is that eventual Palestinian statehood should only be achieved through negotiations with Israel, not through forums such as the U.N.

This is not the first U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan was President, the U.S. withdrew from the organisation citing growing disparity between U.S. foreign policy and UNESCO's goals. It rejoined only in 2004. The Bush administration calculated that renewed participation would help in its diplomatic efforts to win support for the unpopular war it had launched in Iraq.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said with a straight face that the UNESCO vote undermined our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East. She did not bother to explain how Palestine's entry into UNESCO undermined the peace process. UNESCO's priority is to bring clean water to the poor, promote education in the developing world, and preserve historical and religious monuments. Its work in these fields is bound to be badly affected by the Obama administration's decision to cut off funding.

It is now being asked whether the U.S. will take a similar decision if and when Palestine is admitted to other international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which aims to prevent nuclear non-proliferation, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which works to eradicate dangerous diseases. Obama, in his speeches in Cairo and Turkey at the beginning of his presidency, had promised an even playing field for Palestinians.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in early 2011, said she was proud to be the first U.S. Secretary of State ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I strongly believe in your mission. Within months, the U.S. walked out of the organisation and that too because Palestine was bestowed full membership. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2010, Obama had called for Palestinian statehood. It is another story that he backtracked on his commitment in this year's speech to the General Assembly.

Israel, too, announced that it was walking out of UNESCO. Further, using the UNESCO vote as an excuse to annex more territory, the Israeli government ordered the building of 2,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. East Jerusalem is the designated capital of the state of Palestine. The last round of peace talks broke down in 2010 because of the Israeli decision to expand its settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the announcement of new building plans that Israel had a right and an obligation to build in Jerusalem.

Israel wants Jerusalem as its capital. Even the Obama administration, which otherwise succumbs to the diktats from Tel Aviv, has so far refused to recognise the claim of an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

As a further punitive measure in response to the UNESCO vote, Israel decided on November 1 to freeze the transfer of tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority (PA). There are reports that the Obama administration is also planning to cut off aid to the financially strapped PA.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he was deeply concerned by Israel's announcements, adding that Israel was obliged by international law to transfer funds meant for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Israeli move meant that the PA would not be able to pay salaries to its 1,50,000 employees for the first time since 2007. The Israeli decision to deny Palestinians access to their own custom tax revenues is an unlawful punitive measure that Israel has done in the past [2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011] and will most likely do so again, the PA said in a statement. The U.S., which still pretends to be an honest broker in the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, has once again sided with the stronger side that keeps forcibly occupying land.

Former French Foreign Minister Michel Roccard remarked that after the recent UNESCO episode, the U.S. had lost its moral right to lead the negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli leadership, backed by its strong lobby in the U.S. Congress, had been insisting that the U.S. should follow Israel out of any international agency which admitted Palestine.

Richard Falk, the noted expert on international law and U.N. Rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, has suggested that countries like Turkey, Brazil, India and Egypt could constitute themselves as a more legitimate quartet than the horribly discredited version of a quartet comprised of the United States, Russia, the E.U. and the U.N..

Obama's latest act of kowtowing to Israel will only further alienate the U.S. from the Arab Street. Obama's attempt to deny the hatred that Arabs feel towards the United States and Israel because of the actions of these two countries is nothing short of the continued refusal of the United States and Israel to take responsibility for their own actions by shifting the blame for the horrendous violence they have inflicted on the region on their very victims, wrote Joseph Massad, the author of the book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.

In the middle of this year, 80 members of the U.S. Congress visited Israel. Both Republicans and Democrats in the group promised to introduce even tougher legislation to prevent the possibility of a Palestinian state emerging in the near future. One Republican Congressman said he would introduce a resolution that would endorse Israel's right to annex the West Bank and Jerusalem. A Democratic Congressman went one step further and said that he would propose a Bill that would cut off military aid to any country supporting the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.