Recent media reports indicate that the Biden administration is seriously considering re-engaging with UNESCO and restoring its status to that of a full-paying member of the organization. The same reports relate to the fact that the United States is urging Israel to make a similar move.1
This was recently confirmed by U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who expressed support for such a move, claiming that it would be easier to influence the organization from within than from without: “Since the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, we have seen that many of our adversaries have really exploited the vacuum we left to advance their own authoritarian agenda in the organization. And we don’t believe that’s in U.S. or Israel’s interest.”2
Such talk of rapprochement with UNESCO comes four years after both the United States, under former President Donald Trump, and Israel withdrew from the organization in 2018, claiming anti-Israel bias, and seven years after former President Barak Obama suspended payment of membership dues in 2011, when the organization overwhelmingly voted to grant full member-state status to the Palestinians.3
Such a politically generated resolution, similar to other such resolutions adopted by the automatic majority in the U.N. and its specialized agencies, ignored the simple fact that no Palestinian state exists and no Palestinian state has membership in the U.N. On the contrary, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 67/19 (2012), which served as the basis for granting full membership status to the Palestinians in UNESCO, did not establish a Palestinian state but merely upgraded them to “non-member observer State status in the United Nations.”4
Granting full member status was therefore not compatible with the requirements of the 1945 UNESCO Constitution, which refers specifically, in its second article, to full membership only by state members in the U.N.5
The U.S. suspension of payment of its membership dues and subsequent decision to leave the organization was the result of Congressional legislation—the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriation Act, 1994, that “prohibits voluntary or assessed contributions to the United Nations or any affiliated organization that grants full membership as a state to any group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”6
Thus, this legislation bans U.S. contributions to the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies that grant membership as a state to the Palestinians. Accordingly, U.S. payments to UNESCO (including a debt of $542 million) were halted by the Obama administration in 2011, bringing about an end to U.S. voting rights in the organization. Ultimately, during the Trump administration in 2018, the United States decided to leave the organization.
In order for the United States to engage once more with UNESCO, Congress would have to rescind that legislation or grant a waiver.
Evidently, encouraged by thoughts in the Biden administration of a return to UNESCO, Congress’s Senate Appropriations Committee recently introduced legislation to waive the previous law7 if the administration and Congress believe that rejoining UNESCO would allow Washington to counter Chinese influence or promote other U.S. interests.8 To become law, the appropriations bill containing the waiver would have to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives, and there has been no indication from congressional leaders as to if and when such a vote might take place. The issue is not likely to be raised prior to contentious congressional elections next year. The Democrats currently hold slim majorities in both houses.
Israel’s opposition to UNESCO
Granting full state membership to the Palestinians was also one of Israel’s issues with UNESCO, in addition to growing politicization, hostility and blatant bias against Israel, in stark violation of the basic purposes and functions of UNESCO as set out in the opening provisions of its Constitution (Article I(1)), according to which: “The purpose of the Organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.”
Such acute politicization and undermining of its basic purposes and functions are typified by a number of resolutions of the organization’s executive board that negate Jewish ties to Judaism’s most holy sites in Jerusalem.9
Similarly, in a 2016 resolution, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee registered the biblical Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), located in Hebron, in the name of the “state of Palestine” when it inscribed it onto its “List of World Heritage in Danger.” As the Tomb also houses the “Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque,” the UNESCO inscription focused primarily on the site’s Islamic history, rather than its earlier Jewish one.10
Political and legal implications of rejoining UNESCO
Rejoining UNESCO would imply an indirect legal recognition by the United States and Israel of Palestinian membership as a full state in the organization. This would not be in accordance with international law, which does not recognize that the Palestinians fulfill the requirements for statehood.11
Rejoining UNESCO would be perceived to be an acknowledgment of Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood outside the framework of negotiations with Israel, inasmuch as it implies a prejudgment of the issue of Palestinian statehood, despite the absence of any permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In this context, Israel has consistently stressed that the creation of a Palestinian state could only be based on terms and conditions that address Israeli concerns.12
Consequently, the United States and Israel rejoining the organization, and thereby indirectly acknowledging a Palestinian state, sends the message to the Palestinians that they don’t have to fulfill their Oslo Accords obligation to negotiate with Israel to realize their ambitions, decreasing the likelihood of negotiations and consequently extending and exacerbating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Legally speaking, any Israeli and/or U.S. return to UNESCO and concomitant implied recognition of Palestine would bypass and violate the fundamental premise of the Oslo Accords, which posited that the permanent status of the territory, as well as resolution of controversial issues—such as the status of Jerusalem, refugees and settlements—would only be accomplished through negotiation between Israel and the PLO.
Whether such negotiations would result in the establishment of a Palestinian state or any other political framework, such as a federation, confederation or any other combination, would be dependent on their outcome.13
Moreover, recognition of a Palestinian state before such entity meets the criteria of statehood would amount to premature recognition, which is also incompatible with international law.14
Above all, rejoining UNESCO would be interpreted by the Palestinians as a green light for continued involvement in terror and in the delegitimization of Israel including their encouragement and propagation of terrorism through their “pay for slay” policy, by transferring funds to Palestinians and their families who have carried out terrorist attacks against Israelis.15
In light of numerous reports and studies that have found that curricula and textbooks throughout Palestinian Authority-run educational institutions advocate and glorify terrorism and anti-Semitism,16 the granting de facto recognition of a Palestinian state without rectifying such problematic policies will be perceived by the Palestinian leadership as encouragement and sanction for such educational policies, without implementing reforms necessary to advance peace in the region.
Lastly, an American/Israeli return to UNESCO would set a toxic precedent for other international organizations and would inevitably serve as a precedent for accepting full state membership by the Palestinians in other U.N. agencies and bodies.
Politicization of UNESCO
Rejoining UNESCO would imply acceptance by the United States and Israel of the plethora of politically generated anti-Israel resolutions that have been adopted by various constituent bodies of UNESCO.
Indeed, as stressed by the NGO UN Watch, UNESCO passed a total of 47 resolutions between 2009-2014, 46 of which were directed against Israel and only one criticizing Syria.17 None of these resolutions made any reference to human rights, educational and cultural violations by the likes of North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, ISIS or any of the other culturally destructive regimes in the world.
Consequently, rejoining UNESCO at this point would be considered to be sanctioning UNESCO’s own neglect of its functions and purposes, namely “the contribution to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture” as set out in Article 1 of its Constitution.
Conclusion and recommendations
It is patently clear that any U.S. intention to rejoin UNESCO and urge Israel to follow suit would be a remarkably poor and ill-advised idea and incompatible with declared policies. It would also undermine the basics of the agreed peace negotiation process to which the United States is a signatory.
Perhaps the only way in which Israel and the United States could possibly rejoin UNESCO without undermining their own legal, political and moral principles and obligations would be pursuant to a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on a permanent status agreement, the outcome of which would enable full membership in international organizations.
An alternative option would be that the appropriate bodies within UNESCO resolve to suspend Palestinian full membership status and resort to observer status, pending the outcome of the negotiation of a permanent status agreement with Israel that determines the status and governance of the territory.
Since the realization of these options appears to be highly unlikely in the prevailing circumstances, the U.S. administration might prefer to reconsider its position on this issue, in accordance with its own declared policies of supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and postpone thoughts of returning to UNESCO prior to the achievement of a permanent status agreement.
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1 https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/israel-not-returning-to-unesco-now-fm-director-general-says-685626 See also https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-takes-steps-return-un-cultural-body-that-trump-quit-2021-10-22/ and https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/317341
107 states voted in favor (including Belgium, France, Spain, Finland, Austria, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus and Ireland, China and Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, all the members of the Arab League and several others, including Indonesia, Turkey and Nigeria); 14 countries opposed (the U.S., Israel, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, Panama and a handful of South Pacific island-nations); 52 countries abstained (Britain, Denmark, Portugal and half a dozen Central European countries); and 21 states were absent.
6 U.S. Congress – House of Representatives H.R.2295 – Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 1994 Title V: General Provisions https://www.congress.gov/bill/103rd-congress/house-bill/2295 See also
9 https://www.dw.com/en/unesco-formally-approves-controversial-resolution-on-east-jerusalem/a-36086258 and https://www.dw.com/en/unesco-approves-resolution-on-jerusalem-holy-site/a-36162918 and https://www.dw.com/en/goodbye-unesco-israel-and-us-quit-un-heritage-agency/a-46910385
10 For the full text of this resolution see https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/full-text-of-unesco-s-resolution-on-jerusalem-1.5450617 October 18, 2016. See also https://www.e-ir.info/2019/02/14/why-did-the-u-s-and-israel-leave-unesco/
See the following articles discussing the politicization of UNESCO and its resolutions against Israel:
15 For an in depth analysis of this policy, see https://jcpa.org/pdf/salaries_kuperwasser_12dec2016_nomarks_covers.pdf
Ambassador Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
Wade Ze’ev Gittleson is a student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, specializing in law and international relations.
Lea Bilke is a law student at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, specializing in international and European law.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.