Palestine state quest wins victory in UNESCO vote

PARIS – Palestine has won a first diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood as UNESCO's executive committee backed its bid to become a member, a move deemed "inexplicable" by the United States.

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 favor to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The Palestinian bid will now be submitted to the general assembly of the UN cultural body at the end of the month for final approval.

The United States urged all delegates to vote "no" at the general assembly.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the UNESCO decision was "confusing" as the UN Security Council weighs a request from the Palestinians for full UN membership, which the United States opposes.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to the Dominican Republic, she said: "I found quite confusing and somehow inexplicable that you would have organs of the United Nations making decisions about statehood or statehood status, while the issue has been presented to the United Nations."

Clinton insisted that "the decision about status must be made in the United Nations and not in auxiliary groups."

US Republican lawmaker Kay Granger, who chairs the key subcommittee that disburses US monies for diplomatic purposes said in a statement that she "will advocate for all funding to be cut off", if UNESCO accepted the Palestinians as a state.

The membership request, which Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 23 September, will likely be voted on 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.

Spain, however, said it would likely back the executive committee's recommendation.

"The government anticipates that it will vote in favor of this recommendation during the general assembly, if the vote takes place and no common European position has been reached," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

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.

Israel on Wednesday lashed out at both the Palestinians and UNESCO for a move it said ran against the peace process.

"The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

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 region is under dispute.

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 25 October 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.

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