Though the probability of success of the renewed efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to forge a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is still uncertain, experts have expressed concern about a longstanding policy that could force the United States to lose much of its multilateral clout within the United Nations should the talks break down.
Foreign policy specialists from within and outside of U.S. government offices in Washington, D.C., worry about the ramifications of a Palestinian decision to unilaterally widen its campaign to seek international recognition as a state by applying for membership status within U.N. agencies.
Despite opposition from the U.S., the Palestinian Authority asked for and received “nonmember state” status at the 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2012, part of its “Palestine 194” plan to eventually be admitted as the global body’s 194th member state.
Although the Palestinians have agreed to freeze their U.N. campaign during the current round of talks in Jerusalem, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, expressed his certainty that they’d renew their membership campaign if the talks collapse, which in his view is very likely.
“We know that the Palestinians are going to go back to the U.N.,” Schanzer, author of the newly released State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State, told Washington Jewish Week. “They have applied, or let’s say they set the wheels in motion, for roughly 50 new agencies that they’d like to apply to.”
Doing so would create a situation similar to 2011, when after winning “nonmember state” status the Palestinians received recognition from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization by a vote of 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions. That move triggered laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 and 1994 that mandated the withdrawal of American financial support of any U.N. agency that granted the Palestinians the “same standing as member states,” and the U.S. quickly withdrew its funding and membership from UNESCO. At the time, The New York Times reported the divestment as representing a quarter of the organization’s budget.
Should the Palestinians ultimately join more agencies as full members, Schanzer pointed out, the U.S. could find itself forced to withdraw from organizations in which, due to the agency’s makeup and scope, American and Israeli views are already marginalized. Essentially having the P.A. dictate the terms of U.S. engagement with the United Nations and its agencies is a poorly thought out way, Schanzer argued, of shaping American foreign policy.
But Congress would first have to a approve a waiver of the Bush and Clinton-era laws, or pass new legislation, in order to grant the Obama administration options in deciding which organizations to defund and drop out of. An aide on Capitol Hill familiar with the issue said that’s not likely to happen.
“Congress has refused to pass at the administration’s request a waiver that would allow the U.S. to continue funding UNESCO,” the aide explained. “If you use that as a metric, I think that it doesn’t appear that Congress is in the mood to amend the existing law to give the administration flexibility on the issue. The language is written in such a way that the president has no wiggle room to provide funding.”
The aide added that although UNESCO is not seen as essential to U.S. interests, losing membership in organizations that are critical – such as the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency – would not advance U.S. foreign policy goals.
“Frankly, the law was poorly drafted when it was enacted,” the aide said. “I don’t think the law’s authors ever intended for the United States to be forced to pull out of every single U.N. agency that the Palestinians decide to join. That’s not in the U.S. interest and it’s not in Israel’s interest.”
Former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith Al-Omari agreed that Congress probably needs a better solution rather than be bound by decades-old statutes. The executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine framed the current divestment policy as the U.S. “cutting off its nose to spite its face.” But while he advocated for a more flexible approach in Washington, he said that a Palestinian campaign at the U.N. may not be as forceful as previous efforts.
“From a Palestinian perspective, going to the U.N. is a default position. They’ve been talking about it for so long, they’ve made some moves, all of their spokespeople say if the negotiations fail they will go to the U.N.,” explained Al-Omari. “What we are starting to see more recently is that they are becoming more aware of some of the complexity of that path.
“They realize, on the one hand, for something like the International Criminal Court, if they go down that path, assuming they do get admission, they will become vulnerable themselves,” he added.
Al-Omari stated there are some agencies, like the World Health Organization, that would view an ascendant Palestinian position skeptically because of the funding issue. Nevertheless, the U.N. option remains a vastly popular policy among people in the West Bank.
On Capitol Hill, attempts to alter the funding question are sometimes viewed as a litmus test for support of Israel. Others question whether continued U.S. involvement in the U.N. and its agencies is as beneficial to Washington as the resources it contributes.
“If the U.S. withdraws, it’s the agencies’ loss,” said Richard Schifter, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and current chairman of the board of the American Jewish International Relations Institute. “We’re not exercising power through these agencies; we just spend money for worthwhile causes. So if they make us cut off our assistance to an agency like the World Health Organization, Congress might be prepared to add a similar amount to our bilateral assistance programs in the field of health care. We might even be able to accomplish more by spending money directly on U.S.-sponsored programs.”
JNS.org contributed to this article.