PARIS — Palestinians cleared their first hurdle Wednesday to full membership in the U.N. cultural agency, an official said, as they expand and accelerate their push for international recognition, despite opposition from the United States and Israel.
With peace talks stalled and landmark efforts to get Palestine recognized at the United Nations inching along a labyrinthine path, Palestinian diplomats are pursuing other, potentially faster avenues toward getting the world to consider their territories a nation.
One is in Paris-based UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, where the executive board agreed Wednesday to send the Palestinians' request to a vote of the body's members.
The Palestinians are also seeking a foothold in the World Trade Organization and won partnership status this week in the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body.
The Palestinian leadership, after Morocco, became only the second recipient of that status, which comes with benchmarks for progress toward democracy and human rights like ending the death penalty.
None of this will solve the conflicts with Israel over security, violence and borders that for decades have prevented a Palestinian state from coming into existence. But it may up the pressure at U.N. headquarters and weigh on fresh efforts to resuscitate peace talks.
The UNESCO request is being seen as a test case indicating the breadth of support for the Palestinian push.
The Palestinian delegation, which has had observer status at UNESCO since 1974, presented a draft resolution to the agency's executive board on Wednesday, according to diplomats there.
A UNESCO official later confirmed that the board voted overwhelmingly to send it to a vote of the body's 193 members, two-thirds of whom must approve any request for full membership.
The vote has not been scheduled, but will take place at UNESCO's General Conference, which runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10.
The diplomats and the official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The question is highly divisive, and may rekindle tensions between Arab and Western governments just as democratic uprisings in the Arab world have brought them closer together.
The Palestinians have sought UNESCO membership before, to no avail. This year, UNESCO diplomats said, they are using a different method for the request, via a draft resolution. They may have more momentum now, after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took his people's quest for independence to U.N. headquarters in a landmark move last month.
Opponents say the UNESCO bid could undermine the broader U.N. discussions. Israeli diplomats are trying to persuade leading governments "not to politicize UNESCO and leave this subject to New York," Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, told The Associated Press.
"The tragedy is that this hampers UNESCO from doing its real job," he said, noting that the agency's board has taken up five Israel-related issues in recent days and none regarding Syria or Libya. "A relatively small minority is hijacking the organization for other purposes," he said.
Ismail Tilawi, the representative of UNESCO in the Palestinian territories, says that since the formation of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s, a request for Palestinian membership has been on the agenda of every UNESCO General Conference, which convenes every two years.
The chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, called for a cutoff of U.S. funds to UNESCO if the Palestinian effort succeeds this time.
"Feeling that their efforts at the U.N. Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the U.N. system for recognition," Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said in a statement. "It is deeply disappointing to see UNESCO, which has reformed itself in recent years, poised to support this dangerous Palestinian scheme. The U.S. must strongly oppose this move."
In fact, a U.S. law prohibits Washington from funding a U.N. organization that grants full membership to any group "that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Since the U.S. makes significant contributions to UNESCO, the membership bid, if successful, could result in a major drop-off in funding for the agency.
The U.S. withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 to protest a resolution adopted years earlier that had equated Zionism with racism and did not rejoin for nearly 20 years.
France is worried the Palestinian bid at UNESCO will derail efforts to resuscitate peace talks.
UNESCO is "not the appropriate place" and its meeting later this month "is not the right moment" to seek recognition, a French diplomat said. The diplomat was not authorized to be named speaking about closed-door UNESCO discussions.
The UNESCO meeting in Paris comes amid a new effort by the so-called Quartet of Mideast negotiators to revive peace talks. The Obama administration's special Mideast peace envoy, David Hale, is coming to Paris this week ahead of a meeting in Brussels of the Quartet – the U.S., European Union, Russia and U.N.
In addition to advancing the Palestinians' push for recognition, UNESCO membership could offer the Palestinians a key bargaining chip by allowing them to seek protected U.N. status for disputed cultural heritage sites.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council committee that reviews membership applications is considering the Palestinians' request. The committee is seeking to determine if the request meets the criteria of the U.N. charter, which requires that applicants be "peace-loving" and accept its provisions.
John Heilprin in Geneva, Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Jamey Keaten in Strasbourg contributed to this report.