UNESCO Admits Palestine, May Lose U.S. Aid Money

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UNESCO votes to admit Palestine, ensuring a cutoff of U.S. aid to the U.N. organization. The U.S. and Israel have also warned that the action could harm the Middle East peace process.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Palestine became a full member of UNESCO today. That's the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. It's based in Paris. The highly divisive breakthrough for the Palestinians could end up costing the UN agency a chunk of its budget. The U.S. and Israel have also warned that the action could harm the Middle East peace process.

But as Eleanor Beardsley reports, a large majority of member nations supported the Palestinians' bid, anyway.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The usually staid UNESCO headquarters was in an uproar today as delegates from the 194-nation body voted to give the Palestinians full membership.


BEARDSLEY: As the vote passed, 107 for, 14 against with 52 abstentions, the main hall erupted in cheers and applause. The vote is a symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it could end U.S. funding for UNESCO, which provides some 22 percent of the organization's budget. Legislation passed by Congress in the 1990s requires the U.S. to stop financing any UN agency that grants full membership to the Palestinians.

Speaking to the packed hall just after the vote, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said it would now be difficult for his country to continue supporting UNESCO's good work. Killion said the vote would not make the peace process easier, either.

DAVID KILLION: No nation is more committed to the quest for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians than the American people, but the only path to the Palestinian state that we all seek is through direct negotiations. There are no shortcuts and we believe efforts such as the one we have witnessed today are counterproductive.

BEARDSLEY: But after years of setbacks and delays to the peace process and the continued building of Israeli settlements on occupied land, the Palestinians say they are looking for new solutions to the impasse.

Nadeem Shayhada(ph) with the Middle East program at London-based think tank Chatham House.

NADEEM SHAYHADA MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM, CHATHAM HOUSE: I think the idea is to spread the name of the Palestinian state and get recognition in all these international organizations. It gets people used to the idea of the existence of the Palestinian state and puts more pressure on mainly the U.S.

BEARDSLEY: But critics say today's vote could be just the tip of the iceberg. They say the Palestinians could now apply for membership in a number of other UN organizations where the U.S. does not have a veto, including the International Atomic Energy Agency.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you very much. Now, I give the floor to Peru.

BEARDSLEY: Back in the UNESCO hall, representatives from country after country gave the reasoning behind their votes. Nearly every Arab, African and Latin American nation supported the Palestinians. Europe was divided. Germany joined the U.S. in voting no, while Britain and Italy abstained. France, after failing to talk the Palestinians out of their UNESCO bid, voted to support them in the end.

UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian, welcomed the organization's 195th member cautiously.

IRINA BOKOVA: Let me be frank. I'm worried. We may compound the situation that could erode UNESCO as the universal platform for dialog. I'm worried for the stability of its budgets.

BEARDSLEY: It didn't take long for her worries to pan out. In Washington, the State Department said a $60 million UNESCO November dues payment will not be made. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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