01 November 2011

UNESCO Palestine Vote

When I am wrong about something, I am the first one to admit it.

A short while ago I wrote about the proposed Palestinian membership to UNESCO and stated that it was not a helpful move at this point. Today, I am here to state that I was wrong in that assessment.

If you read this blog you know that while AIPAC-Likud-Republican folks use similar language for the Palestinian move, my perspective have nothing to do with theirs as I do not share their disdain for the peace process and their cynicism about a viable two-state solution.

On the contrary, I am probably the only person alive who is convinced that such a solution is likely to take place in the next couple of years. My reasoning is based on the fact that such a solution is in the interest of the US who wants to control the distribution of oil and gas in a stabilized region and in the interest of Israel who would have a hard time maintaining the regional status quo and address its security needs after the fall of Mubarak (and the eventual fall of Al-Assad in Syria).

I believe that one way or the other a Palestinian state will happen.

It is because of that belief that I thought the Palestinian move at UNESCO was unnecessary. But now that it happened, far from considering it pointless, I can see the benefits of it.

1) The first and obvious gain from it is to keep the issue on the agenda. Especially since there is an upcoming vote in the UN proper, this will help to keep the intransigence of Israel's stubborn coalition government very visible.

2) I initially thought that the US would react strongly to this (fearing that a public humiliation of Israel would harden their stance) but their reaction turned out to be fairly muted. They did announce withholding their contribution to UNESCO, which is automatic by law, but they also added that they will work to finds to minimize its impact.
"Today's vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. She said the U.S. remained committed to UNESCO and its goals, which include the promotion of science, education and culture, and that the administration would work with Congress to preserve U.S. interests and influence in the body.
If you believed the mainstream narrative (i.e. the US and Israel vs the world) you could say that the US was once again harming its own interests to support Israel. If you believed my contrarian view that the US is playing a double game of siding publicly with Israel but making major moves behind the scenes to coax it to work it out with Palestinians, this muted reaction and reassurances to UNESCO makes sense.

As far as I know, the withholding of dues does not lead to the ejection of a member state. They simply lose their ability to vote on decisions.

3)UNESCO membership opened the way to Palestinian membership in other specialized agencies. The first one is likely to be WIPO, World Intellectual Property Organization. WIPO Convention requires no approval process or votes: any member of a specialized UN Agency is eligible. What is interesting about WIPO is that it does not rely on member dues. Its main source of income is patent fees collected through the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). So a public gesture like withholding contribution would be quite meaningless there.

As with UNESCO, I doubt that WIPO requires the ousting of non-paying members, but the US will lose its vote and its seat at the table. An article in UN Dispatch claimed that the US will be forced to pull out of WIPO and other agencies but I seriously doubt that.

But if it were to come to that, it would be interesting how far the US would go in its public support of Israel. Since Intellectual Property is critically important for US companies I seriously doubt that they would allow this public display of affection continue.

And it is not just UNESCO and WIPO. There is International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Health Organization (WHO), International Civil Aviation Authority  and many others. While many people might have not heard of these organizations, they are very important as they make tens of thousands of decisions on a vast array of activity areas and losing their place in that decision making process will be very costly for the US:
It goes without saying just how inimical it is to American interests to have this kind of automatic trigger. (Is it really in American interests to cease supporting monitoring of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea because Palestine joins the IAEA?)
So, I was wrong.

It was an excellent move on the part of the Palestinians and one that might accelerate the process towards a negotiated solution.

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