Regional Reaction to Palestine’s UNESCO Bid

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Following the success of Palestine’s UNESCO bid, it was only a matter of time before the United States and Israel would retaliate against the Palestinian Authority. As one of the largest contributors to the UNESCO fund, the United States had the power to inflict suffering on that UN body by withholding payment of its dues. Similarly, Israel has threatened to suspend tax transfers to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority as well as speed up construction of new settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank. While the retaliatory actions were expected, many in the region have expressed great disappointment, especially with the U.S. reaction.

For Jordan Times’s Michael Jansen, “By applying to the Security Council for full UN membership and gaining entry into UNESCO, the Palestinians have thrown off the straitjacket….This scenario is a nightmare for Israel and the US, which had, until the UN General Assembly met in September, managed to use the so-called “peace process” to keep control over the emergence of Palestine, the state so far denied the Palestinians…. Palestine’s drive for recognition has two aspects: territorial and moral. On the one hand, the effort is intended to halt Israeli colonization of land the world — including the US — agrees should belong to the Palestinian state: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza….On the other hand, securing recognition for Palestine undermines Israel’s moral standing and its claim to ownership of the entire geographic Palestine.”

Referring to Palestine’s UNESCO bid, The Jerusalem Post editorial, on the other hand, believes “the event was, in reality, not a cause for celebration but another lamentable example of the moral bankruptcy of the UN and its organizations….But by accepting ‘Palestine’ as a member, UNESCO has effectively given its stamp of approval to the sort of vicious indoctrination undergone by Palestinian schoolchildren at a young, impressionable age. Can we honesty expect any future Palestinian leader to criticize the abhorrent messages that appear in PA textbooks if UNESCO failed to?…Seen in this light, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that the UNESCO decision “is a vote for peace” is utterly incomprehensible. Rather, it is a vote for bigotry, hatred and conflict.”

The most-discussed aspect of the UNESCO vote outcome, however, was the decision of the U.S. government to vote against the Palestine bid for membership as well to threaten to defund the organization. According to a staff report in the Lebanese Daily Star, “Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Wednesday congratulated the Palestinians on winning UNESCO membership, slamming the United States as ‘racist’ over its decision to vote against the move. ‘Hezbollah congratulates the Palestinian people on gaining full UNESCO membership, which is their natural right,’ the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite militant group said in a statement. ‘The United States’ decision to vote against this natural right… reflects its historic policy of racism… as well as its support for and identification with the Israeli enemy.’”

Reflecting on the promise of an Obama presidency for the region, Al Hayat’s Randa Takieddin asserts, “President Obama proved once again that everything he spoke about in his Cairo Address was worthless, because he is unable to carry out any of it, as the alliance with Israel is stronger than anything else. Washington’s decision to halt its funding for UNESCO is shameful for a superpower that gives lessons in democracy and claims to be working to spread education and culture in the world….As long as successive American administrations want to monopolize the negotiations and grant Israel all of the rights while pressuring only the Palestinians, and while the Arabs fail to exert any tangible economic pressure on the White House, the continuing American policy to resist the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people will be a losing one, because it stands against the world’s peace and security.”

The UAE daily The National cites an editorial in Al Quds Al Arabi calling the vote “awkward for the US…. It is regrettable that the United States, Germany and Canada should so shamefully bend to Israel’s will and be among the handful of countries that voted against the Palestinian motion to obtain full membership at Unesco…. The argument that Palestinian membership would be ‘counterproductive’ for the Middle East peace process meant little, ‘for where is this peace process the US is talking about?’ It has been 18 years, the newspaper went on, since the Palestinians made up their mind to follow the ‘path of negotiations’ towards the establishment of their own independent state. So far, that path has offered them nothing but frustration. And now, with this ‘Palestinian victory’ at Unesco, the current US administration is made to endure one its most awkward moments.”

The main Saudi newspaper,  Arab News, was even more critical of the U.S. government, calling U.S. and Israeli threats “infantile”: “The infantile response from the US and Israel to the decision by UNESCO to give full membership to Palestine is astounding….The Israelis have frozen the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority, worth about $100 million a month, and say they will speed up settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. is to stop funding to the UN cultural and scientific organization. Meanwhile, hackers cut the Palestinian Internet and phone systems. This is the sort of behavior to be expected from spoiled brats, not responsible governments….When it comes to the Middle East, the only high standards the Obama presidency maintains are double ones. The U.S. is not even guided by self-interest. The president has sold himself, lock, stock and barrel, not so much to Israel’s interests as to Benjamin Netanyahu’s. For all the rumors that he cannot abide the Israeli leader, he gives a stunning performance as his poodle.”

Even in Israel, there are some who think the Netanyahu government’s actions are self-defeating. The Haaretz editorial calls the its government “myopic:” “The government took advantage of the PA’s acceptance as a full member of UNESCO — the United Nations cultural organization — as well as its efforts to become a member of other UN agencies, to declare a retaliatory action that will further undermine Abbas’ position….If Israel had a sober and responsible, peace-seeking leadership, it would welcome the PA’s membership in UNESCO and even its upgraded status in the United Nations. Unfortunately, and distressingly, Israel is being led by a right-wing, myopic government.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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