US cuts Unesco funding over Palestinian support

Obama administration says it has no choice but to slash UN body's total income by 20 per cent

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The Independent Online

The Obama administration has cut off funding for Unesco after it awarded Palestine full membership – a result hailed by Palestinians as a crucial step in its bid for full UN membership.

There were loud cheers as the results of the vote were announced: 107 in favour, 14 against and 52 abstentions. The vote would, Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, told delegates in Paris after the result, "erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people".

One of the first concrete results of Palestine's membership could be that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is listed as a world heritage site.

But it was a risky gambit, the result of which is that the UN's educational, scientific and cultural body will lose at least 22 per cent – or $60m – of its funding from the United States, which is obliged by a two decades-old law to withdraw support from any body that grants the Palestine Liberation Organisation the standing of a state.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the United States had no choice but to halt funding, and said the vote was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

The vote would, said David Killion, US ambassador to Unesco, "complicate" Washington's efforts to support the body, but insisted that the US remained "deeply committed" to the institution and would seek alternative ways to fund it.

Israel, which voted against the motion, accused the Palestinians of taking a counterproductive step that will change nothing on the ground, while moving a peace agreement further out of reach.

"Unesco deals in science, not science fiction," said Nimrod Barkan, Israel's ambassador to Unesco. "They forced on Unesco a political subject out of its competence. They have forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organisation."

His government said it was reconsidering its co-operation with Unesco.

Before the vote, Israel's outspoken Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that if the measure passed, Israel should cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority. It was not clear whether he was voicing government policy.

But the Palestinians viewed the move as a measure of international support and a moral victory for their campaign to internationalise the conflict amid a prevailing domestic view that peace negotiations have achieved little or nothing for them in nearly 20 years of talks.

Israel and the Americans have insisted that the only way to achieve an independent state is through face-to-face negotiations with Israel, and they have both lobbied vigorously against a parallel Palestinian effort to seek full membership of the UN, a bid that is almost certainly doomed in light of Washington's insistence that it will veto the move. But yesterday's vote faced no such obstacles.