The World from Berlin: By Cutting UNESCO Funding, 'Obama Has Lost Credibility'

The Palestinians succeeded in their bid to become full members of UNESCO and the Americans followed through on their threat to cut off funding. German commentators, however, are unsure whether either party will benefit from the dispute.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki speaking at UNESCO on Oct. 31. Zoom
AFP

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki speaking at UNESCO on Oct. 31.

The reaction from the US seemed almost inevitable. Once the Palestinians succeeded in Paris on Monday in their attempt to become a full member of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, the response from Washington came quickly. The US cut off its funding to UNESCO.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US government was obliged under law to freeze its next UNESCO payment of $60 million (€43 million) which was due later this month. She said: "To admit Palestine as a member is regrettable and premature."

Previously, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had expressed fears that the controversial inclusion of Palestine into UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation -- could have damaging effects. He said: "We will need to work on practical solutions to preserve UNESCO's financial resources."

And the decision does indeed present a great danger to the financing of UNESCO: The biennial budget for 2010-2011 amounts to $653 million (€461 million), with the US responsible for about 22 percent of that. The three largest contributors also include Japan and Germany.

A 'Cascade' Effect

UNESCO has, however, survived without American funding in the past. The United States pulled out of the organization under Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under George W. Bush.

Following their success, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told the meeting in Paris: "This vote will erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people."

And UNESCO could be just the start -- the Palestinians' top envoy at the UN in Geneva said on Tuesday that he believes their membership will "open the door" to joining 16 other UN agencies within weeks. "Now we are studying when we are going to move for full membership on the other UN agencies," Ibrahim Khraishi said. US officials, meanwhile, warned of a "cascade" effect at other UN bodies that might follow from the UNESCO decision.

Commentators in Germany remain unsure of the benefits either to the US for withholding the funding, or the Palestinians for forcing through the vote.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The US, Germany and some of their allies have tried to prevent the Palestinians from joining the UN cultural organization UNESCO. They failed. They should let it be. The US announcement that it would quit paying membership fees is inappropriate to the customs of an international organization. Additionally, the uproar over the issues is counterproductive to the aims of those opposed to the admission."

"Furthermore, America's behavior only serves to bring more attention and momentum to the questionable course of the Palestinians. Both the US and Israel criticized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for forcing a cultural organization to make a decision in a political conflict. But it's through this massive resistance that Abbas gains the attention and political capital that he wants. Abbas has provoked, and hit the bull's eye."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Last year, the US contributed around 16 percent of the Palestinian Authority's budget. Israel received about $3 billion in military aid and diplomatic backing. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Abbas are ignoring America nonetheless."

"One continues to build settlements, while the other would rather pursue a unilateral strategy than negotiate. Netanyahu fears no consequences because the US Congress is behind him, while Abbas knows that Fatah is the only alternative to the radical Islamist Hamas. Obama has maneuvered the peace process into a dead end street. In the absence of alternatives, his threats are ineffective: Following through with them would harm the US more than Israel or the Palestinians. If Obama cuts off financial aid to Abbas and UNESCO, he would lose important allies as well as his credibility in the Arab world. If the payments continue, nobody will be able to take his threats seriously in future."

The center-left Berlin-based Tagesspiegel writes:

"The inclusion of Palestine as a full member of UNESCO ... has many unwanted side effects. UNESCO will no longer be able to finance important projects like the promotion of girls' education in Afghanistan, because the US is now forced by law to cease contributions -- 22 percent of the UNESCO budget. Europe's clout in the Palestinian question is now officially documented; the EU's inability to exert influence on the Middle East can no longer be hidden."

"The practical consequences will lead some friends of the Palestinians to again doubt how politically viable their leadership is when it counts. Therefore, there is little reason to congratulate the new member of UNESCO. The price is too high."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"That UNESCO has now included Palestine as the 195th member in its ranks could raise the pressure on Israel to look to hold talks with Palestinian President Abbas not only in theory, but also in practice -- with confidence-building steps like the clearing of settlements and concrete proposals."

"The membership of 'Palestine' in UNESCO is for the Palestinians a success d'estime that may bring their acceptance into the United Nations a small step closer. Both Israel and the US should consider whether this membership really weighs so heavily that they must terminate their participation in the organization. Washington has already done this once, isolating itself in the process."

-- David Knight

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