Editorial Board

U.S. Needs Wiggle Room to Escape Unesco Trap

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem could use a few repairs, but is it in peril? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says so, having declared the church an endangered World Heritage site last week.

Palestinians made hay arguing that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank threatened the humble church, said to mark the birthplace of Christ. A UN expert committee disagreed, concluding it faced no danger. The U.S. objected to the “endangered” designation, claiming it was a means to attack Israel, but lost the 13-6 vote.

The episode offers a glimpse of the new Unesco, where the U.S. has diminished clout after having announced its intention to stop funding the organization following Palestine’s admission as a member last October. The U.S. purpose presumably was to punish Unesco. Instead, other countries -- notably China and Qatar -- have stepped in to fill the 22 percent hole in Unesco’s $325 million annual budget.

And if the U.S. goes two years without paying dues, it will be ousted from Unesco. Bad idea. Better that the U.S. resume its funding and stay in the organization.

Unesco is no stranger to political controversy, but it does important work: promoting freedom of the press and expression, providing literacy training, safeguarding cultural treasures, and empowering women and girls through education. Moreover, a continued financial boycott of the organization undermines America’s professed commitment to multilateralism, which has helped the U.S. to oppose Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, pressure the Iranians on their nuclear program and isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The cutoff of U.S. funding to Unesco has its roots in a 1994 law. It bans the government from supporting a UN affiliate that grants membership as a state to any entity without the actual attributes of one (internationally recognized borders, say, or control over what happens within them). The law was intended to prevent Palestinians from advancing toward statehood outside of a negotiated settlement with the Israelis.

It’s a reasonable law, but it’s overly restrictive. Administration officials need some wiggle room. Specifically, they need Congress to add a waiver allowing them to override the legislation when doing so is in the national interest.

Some in Congress may prefer to leave the law undiluted, thinking that it will deter the Palestinians from seeking, and members of other UN agencies from granting, membership for Palestine. But the legislation is having the opposite effect. It puts the hammer in the wrong hands, perversely giving the Palestinian leadership the power to force the U.S. out of any UN organization in which they gain membership. Given the world body’s sympathies -- the Unesco vote on Palestine’s membership was 107 to 14 -- that’s no position to be in.

Why should Israel’s supporters in Congress push for a waiver? It’s in Israel’s interest for the U.S. to have a strong voice in Unesco and credibility with multilateral partners. And compared with Israel’s own actions, the U.S. response to Palestine’s Unesco admission was extreme. Israel suspended its Unesco dues in 2012 but continues to fund certain projects, including Holocaust education and a scientific-research program in Jordan. U.S. diplomats expect Israel to resume its full contributions next year. The U.S. needs the flexibility to do the same.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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