By Tom Perry
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinians will seek a vote on their bid for full membership of UNESCO next week, Foreign Minister Riyal al-Malki said Wednesday, despite what he called U.S. threats to pull funding from the U.N. cultural agency.
The initiative is part of a Palestinian campaign, opposed by the United States, for recognition as a state in the U.N. system -- a move the Palestinians hope will strengthen their standing vis--vis Israel.
UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have sought to join as a full member since applying for full membership of the United Nations on September 23.
The bid for a full U.N. seat, which can be granted only by the Security Council, is destined to fail because of opposition by Washington, which has a veto in the forum.
But UNESCO is one agency the Palestinians can join as a full member regardless of their wider U.N. status.
Malki said a Palestinian representative would address UNESCO's General Conference Sunday and the Palestinians were aiming for a vote the same day.
"We are trying with all effort, through our ambassador in UNESCO, to have a vote on our request for membership of UNESCO at the time that we give the speech," he said in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio broadcast Wednesday.
"We hope that we will succeed in this effort despite our recognition of great pressure which the United States of America is leading inside UNESCO," Malki said.
He said there were "great threats ... that if Palestine's membership of UNESCO is approved, the United States will stop its assistance to that organization."
A source at UNESCO, however, told Reuters that Malki and the Palestinian delegation were expected Monday, with a vote seen later the same day.
A general conference of UNESCO members Wednesday did not address the scheduling of a vote but that could be addressed at another conference due Friday, the source said.
A vote in favor of Palestinian membership would trigger an automatic cutoff in U.S. funding to the agency under U.S. law. The United States provides 22 percent of UNESCO's funding.
The UNESCO board decided on October 6 to allow the 193 member states to vote on the Palestinians' application for full admission -- a bid signaling new Palestinian determination to ignore pressure from Washington, one of the Palestinian Authority's main donors, but also Israel's most important ally.
In a letter published by the Washington Post Monday, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova pleaded with the United States to continue funding the organization.
"The UNESCO-U.S. relationship is so intertwined that I cannot imagine the United States disengaging," she wrote.
"Can we imagine UNESCO's World Heritage program without the contribution of such universal landmarks as Yellowstone National Park? Can the United States really withdraw from the UNESCO's work on tsunami early warning in the Caribbean and the Pacific?"
The United States views the Palestinian quest for recognition as a state in the U.N. system as a unilateral move unhelpful to U.S. efforts to revive peace negotiations with Israel, which it says are the only way forward.
The Palestinians say peace talks with Israel, which also opposes the Palestinian U.N. initiative, have brought them no closer to their goal of independence in the two decades since the negotiations first got under way.
The prospect of the Palestinians seeking full membership of other U.N. agencies heavily funded by the United States could threaten U.S. financial support for bodies including the World Health Organization.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Reuters in an October 12 interview she had told U.S. lawmakers that the administration should have the flexibility to decide whether or not to cut off such agencies if they take in the Palestinians.
Speaking about the UNESCO membership bid, Malki said the United States wanted to make it look as though the Palestinians would be to blame for any financial pain.
"They want to make Palestine responsible for all these results, and therefore matters will not be easy in UNESCO in the coming two days, but despite that, we will continue in our effort," he said.
(Writing by Tom Perry, additional reporting by Nick Vinocur, editing by Tim Pearce)