Paris, Oct 31: Palestinians won a crucial vote to enter UNESCO as a full member today, scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for statehood and full membership in the UN General Assembly.
“The general assembly decides to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO,” said the resolution that was adopted to loud applause by 107 countries, with 14 voting against and 52 abstaining.
Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, who was at UNESCO's Paris headquarters for the vote, hailed “a historic moment that gives Palestine back some of its rights,” while Israel said the move damaged hopes for peace.
“This is a unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,” the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement.
France, which had voiced serious doubts about the motion, approved it along with almost all Arab, African, Latin American and Asian nations, including China and India.
Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany voted against, while Japan and Britain abstained. The United States and Israel are set now to withdraw their funding from the UN cultural body, while other UN agencies may have to debate the thorny issue.
Washington has slammed the move as counterproductive and premature, while Israel's ambassador Nimrod Barkan admitted before the vote that he was resigned to the Palestinians gaining entry.
Staunch Israel ally the United States in the 1990s banned the financing of any United Nations organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member, meaning the body would lose USD 70 million, or 22 per cent of its annual budget.
US ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said after the vote that “this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO programmes.”
Barkan warned that those who voted for the resolution would lose influence over Israel.
“It certainly will weaken their ability to have any influence on the Israeli position,” he told AFP. Barkan slammed countries that “have adopted a science fiction version of reality by admitting a non-existent state to the science organisation ... UNESCO should deal in science not science fiction.”
He admitted that the vote, while symbolic, could have a knock-on effect: “There is potential for a cascading effect of this resolution on many other UN specialised agencies and in New York.”
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas submitted the request for membership of the UN General Assembly in September, and the Security Council is to meet on November 11 to decide whether to hold a formal vote on the application.
As a permanent UN Security Council member the United States has a veto that it says it will exercise at the UN General Assembly, but no one has a veto at UNESCO.
Arab states braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee in October, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.
The Palestinians previously had observer status at UNESCO. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said Friday she was very concerned about the possible withdrawal of US funding. “This would have serious consequences, programmes would have to be cut, our budget would have to be rebalanced,” she told AFP.