UNESCO voted Monday to admit Palestine as its 195th member, forcing the United States to follow a law requiring it to withhold funds -- $80 million a year -- from the organization.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a broad-based development agency that is focused on issues such as clean water, education, literacy, science and the equal treatment of girls and women. Although U.S. aid covers 22 percent of UNESCO's budget, the State Department said after this week's vote that a $60 million payment scheduled for November would not be made.
Laws passed by Congress in 1990 and 1994 and signed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively, require that the United States not provide funds to any U.N. agency that admits Palestine to membership.
The vote for Palestinian membership in UNESCO was 107-14, with 52 abstentions. The United States, Israel and 12 other countries were opposed. The European Union did not take a common position; members voted independently. This vote comes in the midst of a continuing battle over Palestine's overall bid to join the United Nations. Palestine has applied; the U.N. Security Council has the matter in hand and is dragging its feet. A majority favors moving the application forward but a likely U.S. veto, based on its status as one of five Permanent Members, has stalled the request.
The United States argues that Palestine's U.N. application should not move until direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians resolve the future of the two states. Those talks are blocked by the position of the Israelis that their construction of settlements in the West Bank should proceed and the position of the Palestinians that they won't talk with the Israelis while the building continues.
The United States considers UNESCO's mission to be important. It returned to the organization as a member in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration after having been absent since 1984, when it left during the Reagan administration.
The two U.S. laws passed in the 1990s tied the hands of successive administrations, costing them the flexibility to deal with evolving circumstances in the Israeli-Palestinian issue or in U.S. relations with the United Nations.
Congress should repeal the disabling legislation to free President Barack Obama on this matter and permit the United States to continue to play an important role in UNESCO. Not to do so will make America look foolish in international circles, unless that is Congress' intention.