Palestinian leaders and advocates for a Palestinian state hailed the UNESCO Palestine vote admitting Palestine as a member state, describing it as a momentous step. By contrast, American and Israeli officials reacted by, respectively, pulling the entire U.S. portion of UNESCO’s funding (22%) and by threatening to stop working with UNESCO on future projects. According to Reuters, U.S. ambassador to Israel Susan Rice called the landslide vote “deeply damaging” to UNESCO and “no substitute for negotiations.” However, a Palestine Liberation Organization leader quoted by the Los Angeles Times said that UNESCO’s action “indicates which way the vote would go when Palestine’s application for full U.N. membership comes up.”
Given the abysmal status of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, howeverÂ—largely due to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze construction of new settlements in JerusalemÂ—it may be that Palestine has nothing left to lose and potentially a lot to gain from rejecting direct diplomatic efforts and turning to the court of world opinion.
Put another way, it’s not likely that the UNESCO vote will put more pressure on Palestine to accede to Israeli demands and conditions. It’s much more likely that Israel, and the United States as Israel’s most powerful supporter, will feel that pressure. Here are some ways that the Palestine win with UNESCO might increase their leverage:
- Palestinian leaders can now seek full membership status in other UN agencies, with greater confidence of success. Haaretz quotes one strong supporter of Israel in CongressÂ—Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs CommitteeÂ—as calling UNESCO’s action “anti-Israel and anti-peace.” But Ros-Lehtinen goes on to say that this vote “is only the beginning. The Palestinians will now seek full membership at other UN bodies.”
- The success of Palestine in gaining full membership status at UNESCO strengthens their hand at the United Nations later this month when the Security Council votes on whether to approve Palestine’s application for full membership status.
- Even if the vote at the UN Security Council does not go their way, Palestine leaders can still apply for admission as a member state in the General Assembly, where the United States does not have veto power.
- The UNESCO vote increases the political pressure on the United States to recognize Palestinian statehood aspirations. As Time‘s political blog Global Spin notes, although it’s true the United States can and almost certainly will veto any approval of member state status for Palestine in the Security Council, they “really, really would rather not. In light of the Arab Spring and other perceptual challenges, Washington would much prefer that the Palestinians simply fail to muster the nine votes necessary to move the application forward at all.” And it’s those nine votes that are closer to Palestinian leaders’ reach now that UNESCO has approved Palestine’s application for membership.
In short, the UNESCO vote is unlikely to change anyone’s ideology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it does alter the political landscape, and that is more likely to favor the Palestinian cause than Israeli or U.S. wishes.