This is a curious position for the Obama administration to take, given its own official policy that the Palestinians must honor their promises to negotiate peace with Israel, as per the Oslo accords — not roll right past that to seek state credentials from the U.N. But that didn’t stop Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying at a recent Senate hearing, from urging legislators to resume lavishing funds on UNESCO. Kerry’s argument was that America should pay its dues and remain in UNESCO in order to “fight for change, and frankly stand up and defend Israel.”
Kerry’s case might be more convincing if the U.S. had succeeded in standing up for Israel at UNESCO in the past. In 2011, after the U.S. had been pouring money into the organization for years, its efforts fell flat. UNESCO’s member states voted 107–14 to admit the Palestinians (52 abstained, and the rest were absent). Israel’s envoy described the vote as a “tragedy.” America’s ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, limply labeled the vote “counterproductive,” and promptly undercut even that modest criticism by assuring the assembled delegates that President Obama considered engagement with UNESCO a top U.S. priority and that the U.S. would “find ways to support and strengthen the work of this vital organization.”
Since then, the U.S. has remained a member of UNESCO, but if Washington does not resume paying dues by the time UNESCO convenes its general conference this fall, it will lose its vote in the organization. That deadline is provoking a big push by the Obama administration to resume funding the group within the next few months. Bokova is up for reelection this fall, and whether UNESCO’s member states vote her a second term may depend on whether she obtains those American tax dollars they want.
These pressures have just spawned what looks like the most cynical move yet: On April 24, UNESCO announced it would be sending a mission of experts to examine the condition of historic sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. UNESCO is advertising this as a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, since both sides had to agree to the arrangement, which was brokered with the help of UNESCO’s Bokova. According to the New York Times, America’s Ambassador Killion hailed it as “a critical step forward toward depoliticizing UNESCO.”
Perhaps. But all the signs suggest that UNESCO and the Obama administration orchestrated this deal in order to persuade Congress to resume funding UNESCO. The deal was “a direct result of recent visits to the Middle East by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry,” according to the Times, and for Israel, which will be allowing access to potentially unfriendly UNESCO experts, it “represents a concession to the Palestinians.” The Times adds that the Palestinians, for their part of the deal, “are conceding a six-month pause in their regular condemnation of Israel in resolutions over issues like Gaza, the West Bank and education.”
A six-month pause in Palestinian condemnations coincides with a key interval on the UNESCO calendar. It is just long enough for the Obama administration to get a waiver from Congress for the newly silent-on-Israel UNESCO, resume funding the organization, and keep its vote at the general conference this fall — where Bokova, having brought home the U.S. bacon, would be likely to be reelected.
At that stage, the six-month delay in condemnations having expired, the Palestinians and their pals at UNESCO can resume castigating Israel, using U.S. funds to do so.
That is the nature of UNESCO, which is in theory devoted to culture and freeing the minds of mankind, but in practice makes room on its 58-member board for such anti-Semitic, authoritarian redoubts as Russia, China, Belarus, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria (the last of which currently sits on UNESCO’s human-rights committee).