WASHINGTON -- Pro-Israel interests on Capitol Hill may be about to run afoul of the nearly equally powerful lobbyists of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, if a decades-old law prompts the U.S. to defund a major international organization over Palestinian recognition.
The law, passed more than twenty years ago, compels Congress to defund any United Nations organization that admits Palestine as a member, a seemingly perfunctory measure until last week, when the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to admit the Palestinian Authority.
The State Department, saying it was beholden to the dictates of the law, announced immediately that a $60 million payment to UNESCO -- part of an American aid package that composes nearly a quarter of the group's budget -- would be halted.
"We obviously have to comply with U.S. law, we have to comply with legislative restrictions," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday.
Now, with the Palestinians pledging to seek admission to more than a dozen other U.N. bodies -- en route, they hope, to full membership and recognition as a nation -- the State Department and others are scrambling to assess the consequences of a similar withdrawal from well-known UN groups like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization.
But the end of U.S. involvement in one lesser-known UN body, the World Intellectual Property Organization, may pose the most direct consequences for American business interests. If the U.S. is forced to stop funding the group, it would open the door to a possible contest for the attention of lawmakers between the pro-Israel and Silicon Valley lobbies.
WIPO hosts forums for the negotiation of international treaties on copyright protection. It is an essential outlet for Hollywood and Silicon Valley businesses seeking to prevent infringement in the developing world, such as from those who pirate DVDs in China and elsewhere.
The consequences of a diminished US presence in WIPO could be devastating, experts on intellectual property law predict.
"You're trying to engage developing and developed countries in enhancing intellectual property protections where there are already barriers to your success," said Suzanne Stoll, the former WIPO representative in Washington and now COO of the IP lobbying firm Raben Group. "Now you add that you can't vote in the annual governing bodies as the result of a 20-year-old legislative provision involving Palestine. It’s not a good position for the U.S government to be in. You have to anticipate some diminution of your influence in that body. There are always people and interests and nations waiting to fill a void there."
The State Department has said it recognizes these consequences, and is looking for a way to work around them. Yet it has also indicated they cannot see a way forward without new legislation.
"Not paying our dues into these organizations could severely restrict and reduce our ability to influence them, our ability to act within them," the spokesman Nuland said Monday, in discussing a possible "cascade" effect of defunding. "We think this affects U.S. interests, so we need to have conversations with Congress about what options might be available to protect our interests."
In a meeting at the State Department on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer told representatives of the copyright interests that the department was still assessing the possible impact of defunding WIPO. Yet in the meeting, she also downplayed some of the consequences of such an action, said Jesse Feder, the director of international trade and intellectual property for the IP trade group Business Software Alliance.
"I wouldn't say they're trying to find a way around it," Feder said. "What they're trying to do is be transparent with us about something that affects our interests. They are still in a mode of figuring out what all of this means because it's all happening in real time."
State Department officials also pointed out in the meeting that even a non-voting member can chair important committees, Feder said.
But experts say that if a country does not pay dues to the group for two years it will lose its right to vote -- and may end up with diminished ability to influence the votes of others.
"Having worked with WIPO through the years, you try to influence the outcome through whatever means you have -- model legislation, enforcement, carrot sticks," says Robert Raben, an IP lobbyist with the Raben Group. "Being required to withdraw money from the enterprise does two things: your friends who agree with you question your logic and propriety, and your opponents who disagree with you -- China, for instance -- have a fantastic new tool to disingenuously oppose you."
Few congressional observers and lobbying groups see much interest on the Hill for a legislative fix.
"Members aren’t going to vote against Israel –- and that’s how a vote to negate the provision is going to look," said Stoll. "Which is steeped in irony, since the two issues –- IP protection for US inventors and businesses and the state of play in the Middle East -– are completely unrelated."
"At this point in time I am not aware of any groundswell for a lobbying effort like that," said BSA's Feder. "We need to see how things play out. We don't even know for a fact that things are going to come to a head in WIPO."
Spokesmen for Microsoft, Google, and the Motion Picture Association of America, all of whom have been in consultations with the State Department in recent days, declined to comment on any possible lobbying efforts.
In an interview on Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a strong defender of the cuts to UNESCO and other international commissions with memberships he views as distasteful, told The Huffington Post that he wasn't particularly worried about the fallout from possibly having to defund a dozen more organizations.
"There's always a chance that it goes too far," he said. "They all deserve consideration. The priority is, is it in the United States's interests or not. It certainly is in the case of UNESCO, where I fully support defunding it."