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Combat HIV/AIDS or Protect Israel's Denial of Palestinian Rights?

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Now that Palestine has become a full member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after an exuberant 107-14 vote in its favor, two obscure sections of U.S. law may force the United States to rethink whether its unconditional support of Israel is in its best interests.

After the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared independence in 1988, a move which led ultimately to more than 120 countries recognizing the State of Palestine, Congress considered a flurry of initiatives to stifle international organizations from admitting Palestine as a member. Many were similar in intent to resolutions currently before Congress to sanction Palestinians for submitting their bid for full membership at the UN this September.

Among the initiatives enacted into law were two sections of Foreign Relations Authorization Acts from the early 1990s prohibiting funding to any UN agency which gives the PLO "the same standing as member states," or which grants full membership "to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood." Although a majority of the world's countries recognize Palestine, the United States does not, thus tying the hands of the Obama administration and forcing an immediate U.S. defunding of UNESCO.

Nearly one-quarter of UNESCO's budget is funded by U.S. contributions, and U.S. dues of $60 million for 2011 will not be paid, according to the State Department. The New York Times projects "immediate cuts in programs and personnel" to the agency. According to former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, a U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO could exclude the country from "a great many international decisions that have a direct impact on American jobs, lives, safety and security," including early-warning detection systems for tsunamis and literacy programs to benefit Afghan security personnel.

The potential ramifications do not end there, as Palestine's membership in UNESCO could trigger its membership in other specialized international agencies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and lay the groundwork for membership in additional agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch wrote that Peter Robinson, President of the U.S. Council for International Business, is concerned that U.S. withdrawal from WIPO could "hamper the United States [sic] ability to protect the existing interests of the U.S. music, film, and pharmaceutical industry, or to shape copyright rules on new green technologies developed to lessen the impact of climate change." Retreating from the IAEA would constrict the ability of the United States to prevent global nuclear proliferation and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland warned of "lives lost" were the United States unable to fund the WHO.

Last October's sputtering and ignominious demise of the 20-year U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" has demonstrated clearly that the United States is incapable of being an "honest broker" and resolving the long-standing conflict on anything approaching an equitable basis. By arming Israel to the teeth and agreeing to provide another $30 billion of taxpayer-funded weapons from 2009 to 2018, and by deploying its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield Israel from accountability for its myriad human rights violations against Palestinians, the United States is colluding with Israel to prolong, rather than end, its illegal 44-year military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip -- a necessary step toward a just and lasting peace.

U.S. military leaders, such as then Commander of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus, have noted the negative consequences this one-sided U.S. support for Israel has upon its geostrategic interests. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010, Petraeus stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples."

In addition to threatening U.S. geostrategic interests, unconditional U.S. support for Israel and its continued denial of Palestinian human and national rights could now force the United States into a dangerous abandonment of multilateral institutions that protect global heritage sites, check the dissemination of infectious diseases, and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Thanks to ill-conceived Congressional initiatives from two decades ago, the United States is jeopardizing its input in world bodies simply because Palestinians have the audacity to dream of their freedom and exercise self-determination by being part of the international community.

In this period of unprecedented global interconnectivity, the United States cannot afford this retrenchment from important multilateral institutions that protect and promote vital U.S. and international interests. Least of all can the United States afford to do so for the express purpose of protecting Israel's ongoing and illegitimate denial of Palestinian rights.