Palestine won a first diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood on Wednesday when the UNESCO executive committee backed its bid to become a member of the cultural body with the rights of a state.
Palestine’s Arab allies braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the committee’s member states, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.
The Palestinian bid will now be submitted to the UNESCO general assembly at the end of the month for final approval, a victory for a territory already seeking recognition as a state from the United Nations Security Council.
This request, which Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 23, is being studied by council members, who are expected to vote in the coming weeks.
The United States wields a veto on the Security Council, and has said it will veto any statehood bid before Palestine comes to an agreement with US ally Israel over their longstanding territorial standoff.
But no power has a veto on the UNESCO committee, and Washington’s “no” vote in Paris was not enough to halt the motion. Palestinian leaders have said they are under enormous diplomatic pressure to abandon their candidacy.
Earlier in the day France, which abstained on the motion, said “it was not the time” for Palestine to pursue UNESCO backing, calling instead for a return to talks with Israel on a final peace settlement.
France has proposed a compromise measure whereby Palestine would be granted the status of an “observer state” at UN headquarters in New York.
But UNESCO membership would not only be a diplomatic feather in Palestine’s cap — it would allow it to apply to classify its monuments as World Heritage Sites at a time when the heritage of much of the Holy Land is under dispute.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in 2010 that two Jewish holy sites in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and Bethlehem’s Tomb of Rachel, are to be Israeli national monuments.
His decision angered the Palestinians, who said it risked provoking a “holy war”, and it led to international criticism and street clashes in Hebron.
Muslims call the Cave of the Patriarchs the Mosque of Ibrahim, their name for the Prophet Abraham. It his revered by both Jews and Muslims and Palestine plans to submit it for UNESCO heritage status.
They also wish to submit Jesus Christ’s supposed birthplace in Bethlehem, and the ancient walled city of Jericho, one of the oldest ruins known to man.
To nail down their first victory, the Palestinians will need the backing of two thirds of UNESCO’s 193 member states in a vote on October 25 in Paris. Until then, they retain their observer status.
In Ramallah, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki had spoken before the vote of the “enormous and unreasonable” diplomatic pressure being brought to bear to persuade his government to withdraw the bid.