The October 12 announcement that the US will withdraw from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is a shortsighted, damaging and hyperbolic move from the Trump administration, but just the latest in a series of harmful policies, isolationist on the surface but driven by a dangerous nationalist and militarist approach. When compared to other recent Trump edicts — such as the January executive order restricting citizens of seven countries from entering the US (the “Muslim Ban”), the June announcement that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement or most recently, the destructive decision to “decertify” the Iran Nuclear Deal — US withdrawal from UNESCO (quickly followed by Israeli withdrawal) initially appears to less urgently threaten US stability, particularly since the US will retain UNESCO membership through December 2018. When the context of the withdrawal and the history of US-UNESCO relations are analyzed, however, this action’s symbolic impact and repercussions are alarming — and reveal a problem with roots deeper than the Trump administration’s latest antics.
US Congress, Israel and Palestinian Statehood
Heather Nauert, US State Department spokesperson, cited “concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO” to justify the withdrawal. The move was lauded by many right-wing members of Congress, consistent with UN-phobic policies. The first point, “mounting arrears,” refers to the US decision to stop funding UNESCO in 2011 under the Obama administration (eliminating approximately one-fifth of UNESCO’s budget), which led to loss of the US vote at the organization and UNESCO budget cuts.
Discontinued payment is inextricably linked with the State Department’s third point, alleged “anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.” The 2011 decision to halt UNESCO funding arose when the organization granted membership to the state of Palestine. UNESCO was the first UN agency in which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sought full member status, following the state of Palestine’s September 2011 application for full UN membership.
US legislation from 1990, enacted under the George H.W. Bush administration, established that any UN agency that recognizes Palestinian statehood becomes ineligible to receive US funding. Public Law 101-246 states: “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
Meanwhile, Public Law 103-236, enacted in 1994 under the Clinton administration, forbids “voluntary or assessed contribution to 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.”
What is the history behind this US legislation, which appears to blatantly and unabashedly oppose possible recognition of Palestinian statehood?
The US as an “Indispensable Middleman”?
Proponents of Public Laws 101-246 and 103-236 argue that the laws prevent Palestinian attempts to “circumvent the Middle East peace process … to gain unilateral recognition of statehood.” Closer analysis of the laws and the political climate in which they arose suggests, however, that the laws — and failure to amend them to reflect the changed political climate in the over 20 years that have passed — impede rather than facilitate resolution. Possible recognition of Palestinian statehood is now considered essential to peace, not a threat to peace.
Public law 101-246 arose in the lead-up to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, convened by the US and Soviet Union (already near complete dissolution). Despite public perception of an unprecedented degree of Palestinian success at Madrid, as political economist Sara Roy argues, the Palestinians found themselves in a “weak position” after the conference. Then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir believed, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it, that “the status quo was Israel’s best strategy,” and was utterly reluctant to participate.
“Plans for a new wave” of Israeli settlements, designed to “double the Jewish population in the occupied territories in four years,” violating previous promises, were introduced in the lead-up to Madrid, and as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim notes, were “not just incompatible with the peace process,” but were “designed to wreck it.” An emerging internal divide between Fatah and Hamas — which presented itself as a “counterhegemonic force” to Fatah as the Palestinian economy suffered under Israeli control — contributed to peace process stagnation following Madrid.
In the context of the US-Soviet Cold War struggle for global dominance, the US succeeded in assuming “the role of the sole and indispensable middleman and broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as historian James Gelvin writes, and the Madrid conference was one of several key opportunities to solidify this role.
George H.W. Bush did attempt to leverage US funding to pressure Israel to meet international demands to restrict its settlement expansion in 1992. Shlaim describes an unprecedented “American-Palestinian axis” achieved at Madrid, due largely to the Palestinians’ strong performance and moderate approach, an approach the US arguably found closer to its own position than Israel’s intransigent stance spearheaded by Shamir.
However, as Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, wrote in 2011, “Congress was not entirely behind White House efforts related to Madrid.” Hence Public Law 101-246 came about during the Madrid era, and Public Law 103-326 during the Oslo peace process era — ensuring that whatever progress was made in the US-Palestinian relationship, this progress would be legally impeded from culminating in recognition of a Palestinian state by UN bodies. Or, at least UN bodies would only be able to do so while losing sizable US contributions to their budgets.
The 2011 decision to stop funding UNESCO paved the way for the Trump administration to enact a full withdrawal.
2011 was not the US’s first rift with UNESCO. In 1984, the Reagan administration withdrew, also on the grounds that the organization was too critical of Israel, compounded by fears in the midst of the Cold War that UNESCO was “corrupt and too susceptible to Moscow’s influence.” The US rejoined UNESCO in 2002, under George W. Bush’s administration.
In 2011, even after halting funding for UNESCO in retaliation for recognition of Palestinian statehood was legalized, Friedman notes, Congress was not “simply the helpless victim of a law passed 21 years ago during a much different era. If members of [the] 112th Congress wanted to, they could pass new legislation … to avoid a cut-off in funds.” The realistic chances of a congressional amendment were for the 112th congress, and remain for the 115th congress, extremely slim. The Obama administration, in favor of UN involvement, reportedly sought loopholes to continue US funding for UNESCO, but was unsuccessful.
The 2011 decision to stop funding UNESCO paved the way for the Trump administration to enact a full withdrawal. And the 2011 cessation of funding was facilitated and mandated by 1990s peace-process-era legislation seeking to stymie international recognition of Palestinian statehood. In spite of US opposition, the Palestinians have made strides toward international recognition: gaining non-member observer state status at the UN in 2012 and joining the International Criminal Court in 2015.
Though the Trump administration’s action is characteristically provocative, when the US’s historical relationships with both UNESCO and Israel are considered, withdrawal under Trump appears to be more an inevitability than a shock.
UNESCO as a Microcosm of International Politics?
The perspective that the US’s UNESCO withdrawal is the culmination of a long-term problem is supported when UNESCO’s internal politics are taken into account. Just a day after the US and Israeli withdrawals, Audrey Azoulay, the French candidate for UNESCO director-general, defeated the Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari. Given the ongoing Saudi Arabia-Qatar conflict, which escalated into a full-scale Gulf diplomatic crisis in June 2017, is it possible that the timing of the US withdrawal from UNESCO had something to do with desire to ensure the failure of the Qatari candidate?
The history of US legislation on Palestine demonstrates a fundamental US discomfort with a strong, unified Palestinian front.
Qatar and the US have long cooperated militarily, even as Qatar is a primary benefactor for Hamas, the ruling faction of the Gaza Strip designated by the US as a terrorist organization. Qatar-US relations have suffered, however, since Trump lashed out at Qatar for allegedly funding terrorism, a hypocritical accusation amidst US ally Saudi Arabia’s history of funding terrorists.
Given this context, it is significant that the US and Israeli withdrawals from UNESCO come directly on the heels of the Palestinian Hamas-Fatah unity agreement, signed the same day as the UNESCO withdrawals, and giving rise to the Palestinian “prospect of negotiating with Israel with a single voice.” The history of US legislation on Palestine demonstrates a fundamental US discomfort with a strong, unified Palestinian front — unity that makes the possibility of an internationally recognized Palestinian state more within reach.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s current director-general, questioned the timing of the withdrawals, remarking, “Why now, I don’t know, in the midst of elections.”
The point of this article is not to suggest that Qatari leadership of UNESCO would have been superior or inferior to French leadership. (Qatar has its own problematic history of involvement in international institutions.) It is noteworthy, however, that as of October 10, Qatar’s al-Kawari was the leading contender, with France’s Azoulay in second place, a development that elicited a statement the following day from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, deeming al-Kawari “unqualified” and anti-Semitic. Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel’s UNESCO envoy, called al-Kawari’s initial lead “bad news for the organization,” but on October 9 noted “anything can happen” as the election progresses.
We are in Trump’s era of unprecedented support for Israel, including UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s dogged championing of Israel without any apparent effort to appear balanced. It is significant, therefore, that the US withdrawal from UNESCO — on the grounds that UNESCO has demonstrated an intolerable anti-Israel bias — came about at precisely the same time as the director-general elections, and immediately following the Hamas-Fatah unity deal, which marks the first significant development toward a unified Palestinian negotiating entity in years.
In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the US has a history dating back to the Cold War of prioritizing its own involvement in a leadership capacity over sustainable resolution and peace, at times appearing to perpetuate conflict — and thereby extending its own need for involvement and opportunity for dominance — under the guise of “conflict resolution.”
Trump has proven himself willing and able to do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bidding — as long as this bidding also serves Trump’s agenda — and more than willing to trample on US interests to promote grandiose policy moves that he perceives as opportunities to flex his muscles, whatever the cost. US withdrawal from UNESCO also reflects a history of US bias against the Palestinians and an unwavering commitment to Israel, regardless of cost, that predates Trump, and that has its claws firmly entrenched in US politics.
Short-Term Antics, Long-Term Damage
As the president and CEO of The Met in New York, Daniel H. Weiss stated, although UNESCO “may be an imperfect organization, it has been an important leader and steadfast partner” in worldwide cultural preservation.
UNESCO has been the subject of other controversies, such as the decision to deem sites representative of Japan’s Meji industrial revolution World Heritage Sites, amidst criticism from China and South Korea over the sites’ historical associations with forced labor and oppression. But no UNESCO decision has provoked the same level of ire as its actions regarding Israel and Palestine.
In May 2017 a UNESCO resolution criticized Israeli activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and defined Israel as an “occupying power,” a fact that has already been established according to international law, but was nevertheless met with outrage from Israel.
Most recently, in July 2017, UNESCO voted to recognize the old city of Hebron in the West Bank and Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian Heritage Sites. The resolution did not declare Hebron exclusively Muslim, Palestinian or Arab, but rather recognized its geographic location in Palestine, and significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As Odeh Bisharat argued in Haaretz, the resolution declared Hebron “holy to three faiths and located in Palestine. Period.” Israel has several UNESCO World Heritage Sites of its own.
Clearly there is more than initially meets the eye when it comes to the US withdrawal from UNESCO. The meaning behind this decision extends further back than 2011’s cessation of US funding for UNESCO following Palestinian accession to the organization as a full member.
Now that the Qatari candidate for director-general has been defeated and the US and Israel have put on a dramatic show, will the US rejoin UNESCO before its withdrawal becomes official in December 2018? Or will Trump follow in Reagan’s footsteps and opt for an extended absence from the organization? This, of course, depends largely on UNESCO’s actions under new leadership in the months ahead, whether Trump and Netanyahu feel the organization sufficiently acquiesces to pressure to shift towards a pro-Israel stance, and whether the organization is willing to prioritize such a stance over its mission in the realms of education, science, culture and communication.
Is the US withdrawal from UNESCO another example of a Trump regime shock tactic, or a long time coming? The answer is twofold. Yes, the withdrawal is reflective of more destructive and shortsighted Trump antics. And — also yes — the policy is indicative of a long, problematic history of US-Palestinian relations, one that appears to have the ability to negatively impact US stability now, in “Trump’s America” more than ever.