Palestinians raised their flag at the headquarters of the U.N. cultural agency in Paris on Tuesday as the agency's 195th member, a historic move and symbolic boost for their push for an independent state.
Cheers rose as the red, black, white and green flag went up in pouring rain under the gaze of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. She welcomed Palestine without mentioning the U.S. funding cutoff that its membership prompted and that is hobbling the organization.
"This is truly a historic moment," Abbas said later at an indoor ceremony, his speech punctuated by rousing applause and standing ovations. He said he and the Palestinian people were deeply moved that their flag could join the 194 others at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, headquartered in a massive concrete structure on Paris' Left Bank.
"We hope this will be a good auspice for Palestine to become a member of other organizations," he said.
The Palestinians plan to join all international organizations it is entitled by UNESCO membership to enter, Abbas said later at a news conference, putting the number at 16.
"But we will choose the right moment and the right situation. We want the moment to be propitious," he said, refusing to say when that might be.
Abbas also said the Palestinians are closely evaluating the status of their application for U.N. membership and the decision to seek a Security Council vote "could come at any moment."
The council must recommend any application for membership, but it is divided over the Palestinian bid. The United States has promised to veto a resolution recommending membership if the Palestinians get the required nine "yes" votes in the 15-member council _ which diplomats say they don't have at the moment.
Palestine was admitted as a member of UNESCO in an Oct. 31 vote that prompted the United States to cut off funds to the agency _ $80 million annually in dues, or 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget. With the U.S. 2011 contribution not yet paid, UNESCO was immediately thrown into crisis.
Two U.S. laws required the halt in the flow of funds to the agency, forcing it to scale back literacy and development programs in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the new nation of South Sudan.
The Palestinians also are seeking full-fledged U.N. membership, but Washington has threatened to veto that move, saying a negotiated settlement with Israel should come first.
"Integrating UNESCO ... is a sign the world accepts this adhesion and opens the question of why we cannot be admitted to the U.N," Abbas said at the news conference. He called UNESCO admission a "signal on the road to recognition." It is a "step forward in realizing this dream of an independent Palestinian state," he said.
Abbas said that the Palestinians are deploying their efforts to restart peace talks with Israel.
"We are ready to continue the negotiations with Israel and discuss security and border questions on condition that Israel stops colonization activities," he said, referring to a major blockage in the long-stalled peace process.
At the opening of the ceremony, he also stressed that religion is part of the Palestinian heritage that UNESCO has worked to preserve and Jerusalem "must remain the capital of the three revealed religions," referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Palestinian leader later met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. France voted for Palestinian membership in UNESCO and continues to seek a role in restarting peace talks.
Bokova, the UNESCO chief, said at the welcoming ceremony that she sees Palestinian membership in the U.N. organization as "a chance" for peace. UNESCO is "a bridge and not a pretext for divisions."
"This new membership must be a chance for all to join together around shared values ... for peace," she said.
U.S. officials have said UNESCO's decision risked undermining the international community's work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace plan, and could be a distraction from the aim of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Several countries are lobbying the U.S. to renew its funding, and Bokova was traveling to the United States on Wednesday to meet with members of congress over the funding cuts, UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams said. UNESCO would like to find a way to get the laws revamped or get around them to restore precious U.S. funds.
The U.S. remains a full member of UNESCO and was even elected to the executive board after the funding cut.
UNESCO is known for its program to protect cultures via its World Heritage sites, but its core mission also includes activities such as helping eradicate poverty, ensuring clean water, teaching girls to read and promoting freedom of speech.
Responding to a question, Abbas said the fact that the U.S. voted against Palestinian membership in UNESCO does not mean it no longer can stand as a neutral partner in the Middle East peace process.
"The United States is still an intermediary .... We have lots of disagreements," he said, adding, "but we're not enemies."
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