Palestine became a full member of the UN cultural and educational agency Monday, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.
US lawmakers had threatened to withhold roughly $80 million in annual funding to UNESCO
if it approved Palestinian membership. The United States provides about 22% of UNESCO's funding.
UN cultural body to recognize Palestine?
UNESCO against the Jews
- UNESCO, US at odds ahead of PA vote
The United States, Canada and Germany voted against Palestinian membership. Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa and France voted in favor. Britain abstained.
Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 UNESCO member delegations present.
"Long Live Palestine!" shouted one delegate, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO's General Conference.
While the vote has large symbolic meaning, the issue of borders of an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.
Abbas in Ramallah after September UN speech (Photo: EPA)
Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the US has said it will veto it unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO and other UN bodies.
Monday's vote is definitive. The membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.
Following the vote, a US State Department spokesperson warned of the ramifications of the vote, stating that "this application is premature, distracts us from our shared goal of direct negotiations that result in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living peacefully side by side, and could force significant cuts to UNESCO's budget.
"Palestinian membership in UNESCO or another UN specialized agency outside the framework of a negotiated peace agreement could trigger longstanding provisions of US law that would prohibit the United States from making assessed or voluntary contributions to the relevant UN agency," he stated.
United States Envoy to UNESCO, David Killion, noted that Monday's vote will "complicate" US efforts to support the agency.
Israel's Envoy to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy.
"UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction," he said. "They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence."
"They've forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization," he said.
Meanwhile, officials in Israel expressed concern that UNESCO's decision will set a precedent, prompting another wave of recognitions in the Palestinian state.
The Foreign Ministry announced that Israel is rejecting UNESCO's decision to accept the Palestinian Authority as a full member, stating that "following the State of Israel will consider its further steps and ongoing cooperation with the organization."
In a statement issued by the ministry, it noted that "this decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations.
"Israel believes that the correct and only way to make progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is through direct negotiations without preconditions. The Palestinian move at UNESCO, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process."
The Foreign Ministry thanked "those countries which displayed a sense of responsibility and opposed this decision in the UNESCO General Assembly," but also put the blame on the European Union, claiming it did not prevent the move.
"It is disappointing that the European Union, which is working to renew the direct negotiations and opposes the Palestinian move, could not reach a unified position to prevent this decision," the statement read.
Reuters and AP contributed to this report