By Tom Perry
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinians will apply for full membership of as many United Nations agencies as possible as part of push to advance their national interests, an official said.
The plan is likely to generate more criticism from the United States, which has pledged to veto a Palestinian request last month for full membership of the United Nations, if it comes to a vote in the Security Council.
The Palestinians have been preparing their drive for membership of the U.N. agencies over the past two years as part of a plan to get ready for statehood, said Omar Awadallah, who heads the U.N. department at the foreign ministry.
"Our policy is now toward gaining membership of all international organizations, and specialized organizations of the United Nations as a full member," he told Reuters in an interview. "We are not looking for confrontation, we are looking to secure our rights," he said.
The plan advanced last week with a Palestinian application for full membership of the Paris-based U.N. cultural body UNESCO. The organization's board decided to put the application to a vote in a general assembly meeting later this month.
Opposed by the United States, it was the Palestinians' first application for full membership of a U.N. agency since President Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations in New York to admit Palestine as a full member state on September 23.
The United States and Israel oppose the Palestinian diplomatic foray in the U.N. system, describing it as an attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. Washington says only a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can bring about the Palestinian goal of statehood.
Though their application for full U.N. membership looks set to fail due to U.S. opposition, the Palestinians can still secure full membership of some international agencies, even with their current U.N. status as an "observer entity."
These include UNESCO, the World Health Organization (WHO), the international police agency Interpol and the International Telecommunications Union. U.S. pressure has in the past played a major role in dissuading the Palestinians from applying for full membership of such agencies.
But their application for full UNESCO membership, like their bid to become a full member state of the United Nations, has signaled a new Palestinian readiness to ignore U.S. objections.
"There is no justification for rejecting the membership of Palestine in any of these international institutions. It's a case of double standards," Awadallah said. "It confirms one thing: America as a sponsor of the peace process is not neutral."
Acceptance of the Palestinian application for UNESCO membership would trigger an automatic cutoff in U.S. funding for the agency under U.S. law.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week she had made the case to U.S. lawmakers that the U.S. government should have the flexibility to decide whether or not to deny funding to such agencies if they admit the Palestinians.
She highlighted the problems that might result from a U.S. aid cutoff to agencies such as the WHO in Geneva, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
Awadallah said the Palestinians had been advised by "their friends" to back out of the UNESCO application until they had secured full U.N. membership.
"We tried to apply to UNESCO, the WHO and many international organizations in the past, but we were always met with the same response: 'Wait for a solution based on negotiations'."
"For how long can we wait?" he asked, arguing that Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank was responsible for halting the peace process and postponing the chances of a negotiated deal.
"We don't want to use these organizations as platforms for politics. We want to use them to become part of the international system relating to health, for example," he said.
Assuming their application for full U.N. membership is rejected, the Palestinians could seek a U.N. General Assembly resolution that would elevate their status to a non-member state.
Such a decision has yet to be taken.
"Non-member state" status would pave the way for access to more U.N. and international agencies, Awadallah said. These could include the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court, both located in The Hague.
"We are ready to join any organization in the United Nations, including, if we become a state, the ICJ," Awadallah said. "After the end of the phase of building the institutions of state, we are now in the phase of international relations."
(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Alistair Lyon)
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