Palestinians moved a step closer to full membership of the U.N. cultural agency on Wednesday when its board decided to let 193 member countries vote on admission this month.
The latest move in a Palestinian quest for statehood recognition drew a swift rebuke from the United States and Israel, which both argue that the way to create Palestine is through negotiations, and a cool response from France.
In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the Security Council for full membership of the United Nations, ignoring a U.S. warning that it would veto the move, as well as threats from members of the U.S. Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.
At UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 40 representatives of the 58-member board voted in favor of putting the matter to a vote, with four -- the United States, Germany, Romania and Latvia -- voting against and 14 abstaining, a source at the agency told Reuters.
That set the scene for a membership vote at UNESCO's General Conference, a meeting that runs from October 25 to November 10 and involves all 193 members of the agency, based in Paris.
It also raised questions about whether Washington might be required by U.S. law to cut off funding for the agency if it were to accept the Palestinians as a member. The United States pays 22 percent of UNESCO's dues, the State Department said.
EXACERBATING ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN TENSIONS?
U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion urged in a statement all delegations to join the United States in voting "no." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she found it "inexplicable" that UNESCO would consider moving ahead on a Palestinian vote while the issue was still before the United Nations Security Council.
"I ... would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic where she was on an official visit.
Nimrod Barkan, Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, said the move would harm the agency and would not advance Palestinian aspirations.
"The problem is that the politicisation of UNESCO is detrimental to the ability of the organization to carry out its mandate," he told Reuters. "It is not too late to wake up and save this organization from politicisation."
The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. In order to gain full membership, so-called "states" that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Conference.
It was not clear whether Palestine would need to be a recognized state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.
Barkan said he hoped there would be time between now and the General Conference to "undo" the decision, arguing that there was no such entity as Palestine.
To keep pressure on the United Nations, Abbas's Palestinian Authority has been looking at institutions that may recognize their sought-after statehood status -- a campaign triggered by a breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a year ago.
On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, the European Union's main human rights body.
Top Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdaineh said the UNESCO vote showed there was international support for Palestinian statehood.
"The recommendation has been put forward for us to have full membership of UNESCO and it is another political battle in the right direction to reinforce the status Palestinian people," Abu Rdaineh told Reuters.
The maneuvering at UNESCO also angered U.S. lawmakers.
Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said U.S. funding for UNESCO could be cut if full membership was granted.
"Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations," Granger said in a statement.
"Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations," said Granger, who recently held up some $200 million of aid for Palestinians.
The U.S. government has said the Palestinians can gain an independent state on land occupied by Israel in a 1967 war only via negotiations with the Jewish state, Washington's main ally in the Middle East.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry statement said the actions by the Palestinians at UNESCO were "a negative response ... to efforts to promote the peace process ... (and) negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet's proposal for continuing the diplomatic process.
Envoys from the Middle East "Quartet" -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- will meet in Brussels on Sunday to try to revive peace efforts.
France, which has advocated observer status of the United Nations, said that UNESCO was not the place to further the Palestinian case for recognition.
"The priority is to revive negotiations," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. "We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment."