The Obama administration on Monday cut off funding for the U.N. cultural agency, after its member countries defied an American warning and approved a Palestinian bid for full membership in the body.
The lopsided vote to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO, which only the United States and 13 other countries opposed, triggered a long-standing congressional ban on U.S. funding to U.N. bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached. The State Department said a $60 million payment to UNESCO scheduled for November would not be made as a result, and U.S. officials warned of a "cascade" effect at other U.N. bodies that might follow UNESCO's lead.
"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.
But, while Nuland said the U.S. would maintain its membership and participation in UNESCO, the organization's internal rules will strip Washington of its vote if it is delinquent in paying its dues for two years.
It is not clear how U.S. membership would work in the interim, especially since UNESCO depends heavily on U.S. funding. The U.S. provides 22 percent of its budget _ roughly $80 million a year _ but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan and rejoined two decades later under President George W. Bush.
Of potential greater concern to the administration is the possibility that the Palestinians, buoyed by the 107-14 vote in their favor at UNESCO, will apply for membership in other U.N. organizations that the United States values, like the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"We don't see any benefit, and we see considerable potential damage, if this move is replicated in other U.N. organizations," Nuland said. "We are trying to make clear what the implications for us, what the implications for these organizations are, of the move that the Palestinians started here. And we are hoping that this will end here and we can get back to the peace talks because that is the place where we're going to be able to achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people."
Senior State Department officials were meeting Monday with executives from numerous high-tech firms to consider options if the U.S. is forced to restrict its participation in the World Intellectual Property Organization, which sets global standards for copyrights and adjudicates cross-border patent disputes. "We need to make sure that our companies understand the implications of what's happened and begin that conversation with them."
The UNESCO vote was a fallback for the Palestinian leadership that presented its plan for U.N. recognition as a state and full membership in the global body in September. Israel has fiercely opposed the bid, and it has no chance of passing because the Obama administration has promised to veto any resolution in the Security Council.
Nuland said U.S. payments to the Paris-based organization effectively stopped Monday. While more than 150 countries voted for the Palestinian bid or abstained, Nuland insisted that their decision "creates tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table."
The U.S. has long brandished the Palestinian efforts at the U.N. as counterproductive to the Mideast peace process. But Washington has been unable to present a viable alternative, after a year when Israelis and Palestinians have refused to hold any direct talks on the parameters of peace agreement with one another.
"The United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, but such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Nuland said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney also called UNESCO's approval "premature" and a distraction for peace talks. Carney spoke as U.N. Mideast peace envoy Tony Blair was meeting Monday with President Barack Obama at the White House.