NEW YORK — UNESCO voted Monday to admit Palestine into the organization as its newest member, and the United States promptly responded by cutting off funding for the agency.
Acting under a legal requirement to cut U.S. funds to any U.N. agency that recognizes a Palestinian state, the State Department on Monday announced that the United States has stopped funding the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization because of the vote. Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the Obama administration would not make a planned $60 million payment to the agency due this month.
The vote at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters follows a stalled effort by the Palestinians to seek recognition as a U.N. member state. It signaled that the Palestinians intend to pursue membership in a number of specialized U.N. agencies, which have their own rules for membership and where the United States does not have veto power.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, expressed disappointment with the U.S. intention to cut funding to the agency.
“We hope that the United States will not take such a step,” he said. “The world is changing, and the Arab region is changing as well, so it is better to move toward recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people, rather than adopting the same old policies which have proven to be fruitless.”
The vote came amid a surge of cross-border violence between Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military. Gaza militants fired several rockets into Israel on Monday after an Israeli drone strike overnight left two Palestinians dead. Egypt continued its efforts to mediate an end to the violence.
Since Saturday, rocket exchanges and Israeli airstrikes have left 12 militants and one Israeli civilian dead. Most of the rocket firing has been carried out by Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group.
The UNESCO membership bid, which required approval by two-thirds of the agency’s General Conference, passed by a vote of 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.
Huge cheers erupted in the Paris meeting hall when the Palestinian membership was approved, news agencies reported. France cast a surprise yes vote, drawing applause from the delegates. The United States, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany were among those voting no.
The United States provides UNESCO with more than $80 million a year, covering about 22 percent of its budget, thus making any cutoff painful. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she supports a cutoff of aid as mandated under U.S. law.
“Today’s reckless action by UNESCO is anti-Israel and anti-peace,” she said in a statement. “It rewards the Palestinian leadership’s dangerous scheme to bypass negotiations with Israel and seek recognition of a self-declared ‘Palestinian state,’ and takes us further from peace in the Middle East.”
“We recognize that this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO’s programs,” said David T. Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, who characterized the Palestinian bid as “counterproductive” to pursuing peace in the Middle East.
After the vote, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing the membership bid as a “unilateral Palestinian move which will bring not change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement.”
The prohibition on U.S. funding of U.N. agencies that recognize a Palestinian state was included in two pieces of legislation that were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and President Bill Clinton in 1994.
The 1990 law prohibits the appropriation of funds “for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member state.”
In 1994, Congress barred funding “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
The latest Palestinian move comes as congressional appropriators are looking for cuts in foreign aid spending and the Republican-controlled House, especially the Foreign Affairs Committee led by Ros-Lehtinen, is keen to impose cuts on the United Nations for considering the Palestinian statehood drive.
Fearing cuts, UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, appealed to the United States not to punish the organization for the decision of the agency’s executive board, which is comprised of representatives of UNESCO member states. In a letter to The Washington Post, she said UNESCO “supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests” from Afghanistan to Iraq, where “we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces.”
“The issue of Palestinian membership should not be allowed to derail these initiatives, which go far beyond the politics of the Middle East,” she added, citing UNESCO’s work in tsunami early warning in the Caribbean and the Pacific. “None of this is in the interest of UNESCO. Nor do I believe it’s in the interest of Americans.”
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington and correspondent Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.