The Palestinian Authority’s bid for U.N. recognition has substantial downsides, including wrecking the peace process and increasing regional instability. The upside is that it could drive the United States out of the United Nations.
On Monday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership. This step triggered an immediate cutoff of U.S. funds to the organization, which total around $70 million annually. The UNESCO defunding was based on legislation from 1990 and 1994. Section 414 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, fiscal 1990 and 1991, states, “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.” The 1994 law broadens the ban to include the U.N. recognizing “any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
The State Department had warned UNESCO of the automatic defunding provisions and said it could find no way around the law despite the best efforts of its legal team. This mitigates any credit the Obama administration can claim for standing up for Israel on this issue because presumably if State Department lawyers were more clever, the UNESCO funds would keep flowing.
Holding back funds from UNESCO could lead to the United States exiting the organization, but this has happened before. The Reagan administration pulled America out of the organization in 1984 because, according to the State Department at the time, “UNESCO has extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” President George W. Bush announced the United States would return to UNESCO in 2002, claiming much of this had changed. (It hadn’t.) The real reason was to be on the scene to counter the use of the organization as a vehicle for spreading hard-line Islamist propaganda.
The defunding laws have implications for the U.N. as a whole. In September, the Palestinian Authority formally began its bid to seek full recognition from the world body. Such a vote would trigger the same defunding mechanism for the U.N. generally and could cascade to affiliated organizations such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.
It would be ironic if the Palestinian Authority’s move for U.N. recognition became the vehicle for a total cutoff of U.S. funds to the organization and potential pullout. A State Department official quoted in Foreign Policy magazine employed some particularly undiplomatic language to describe the situation. “We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso, and the Palestinians have the remote control,” the official said. “They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It’s 100 percent up to them.” Given their history, it’s pretty obvious how this scene will end.