- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2011

PARIS — Palestine became a full member of UNESCO on Monday in a highly divisive breakthrough that will cost the agency a fifth of its budget and that the U.S. and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.

Soon after the vote, the United States cut funding to the organization because of a U.S. law that bars funding an organization that has Palestine as a member before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

That decision will have an immediate effect: The United States won’t make a $60 million payment scheduled for November, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

UNESCO depends heavily on U.S. funding — Washington provides 22 percent of the organization’s budget, or about $80 million a year — but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under President George W. Bush.

Monday’s vote is a grand symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it alone won’t make Palestine into a state. The issues of borders for an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.

Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval with 173 UNESCO member delegations present. In a surprise, France voted “yes” — and the room erupted in cheers and applause — while the “no” votes included the United States, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.

“Long live Palestine!” someone shouted in French at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO’s General Conference.

Even if the vote’s impact isn’t felt right away in the Mideast, it will be quickly felt at UNESCO, which protects historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy, access to schooling for girls, and cultural understanding, but it also has in the past been a forum for anti-Israel sentiment.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova welcomed the decision but said that she worried it could put the agency in a precarious position.

“It is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the organization,” said Ms. Bokova, who has led a drive to reform the institution. “I am worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I am worried for the stability of its budget.”

Before the State Department announcement, White House spokesman Jay Carney called UNESCO’s decision “premature” and said it undermines the international community’s goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. He called it a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington also criticized the vote. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “Today’s reckless action by UNESCO is anti-Israel and anti-peace.”

Aside from the U.S. funding cut, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it “will consider its further … cooperation with the organization” after Monday’s vote.

Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination, and the U.S. has pledged a veto unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO. All the efforts are part of a broader push by the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas for greater international recognition in recent years.

“Joy fills my heart. This is really an historic moment,” said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki. “We hope that today’s victory at UNESCO marks but a beginning. Our admission to UNESCO is not an alternative, is no substitute for something else.”

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