SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The Obama administration warned the U.N. cultural agency to stay out of the question of Palestinian statehood or face the consequences, as American lawmakers were threatening to withhold tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funding if the organization agrees to admit Palestine as a member before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called UNESCO's deliberation "inexplicable" at a time when the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition and membership was being examined by the Security Council, the global body's top decision-making organ. And she said such an action would be a setback for Mideast peace hopes.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic, where she was attending a regional economic conference.
She stopped of saying how the U.S. might react, or if it would consider pulling out of the agency as it did under President Ronald Reagan, but acknowledged Congress' "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
Clinton said any deliberation over Palestinian statehood must be made at the United Nations in New York and not an auxiliary organ of the global body. And she repeated U.S. objections to even the U.N. route, saying it couldn't replace negotiations with Israel as a fast-track toward Palestinian independence.
"What is the boundary of this state that is being considered by UNESCO?" Clinton asked. "What authorities does it have? What jurisdiction will it be endowed with? Who knows?"
"Nobody knows," she said, "because those are the hard issues that can only be resolved by negotiation, and unfortunately there are those who in their enthusiasm to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people are skipping over the most important step, which is determining what the state will look like, what its borders are, how it will deal with the myriad issues that states must address."
Clinton spoke after two top members of the House panel that oversees UNESCO's funding said it could lose roughly $80 million in annual U.S. contributions if it follows the recommendation of its board and admits Palestine. The board of the Paris-based agency made that recommendation earlier Wednesday, over U.S. objections, and a vote from the full body is expected later this month.
The U.S. provides 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. But it was in the clear minority when the board voted 40-4 with 14 abstentions in favor of recommending the Palestinian bid. Apart from the U.S., only Latvia, Germany and Romania voted against, according to U.S. officials.
While lawmakers have proposed suspending U.S. assistance to the Palestinians if they proceed with a bid for U.N. membership, current U.S. law prohibits giving funds to the United Nations or any U.N. agency that grants the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.
In addition, existing U.S. law can bar Washington from funding any U.N. body that accepts members that do not have the "internationally recognized attributes of statehood." That requirement is generally, but not exclusively, interpreted to mean U.N. membership.
The Palestinians are seeking recognition and full membership in the United Nations at the U.N. Security Council but the U.S. has said it will veto the bid unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Faced with that obstacle, the Palestinians have taken their request to other U.N. bodies.
Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-NY, the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the House panel that controls U.S. foreign aid, both urged UNESCO not to admit the Palestinians, noting the aid restrictions.
"Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations," Granger said in a statement. "There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations."
Lowey said UNESCO's board should "foster – not thwart – conditions for peace."
Clinton also criticized the Palestinians for pursuing recognition "of whatever sort through the United Nations rather than returning to the negotiating table to resolve the issues that will result in a real Palestinian state, something that the United states strongly supports."
"But we know that there cannot be a state without negotiations," Clinton said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.