It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point, both
the president and Congress would be faced with a clear choice between U.S.
national interests and the demands made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu and his powerful Washington lobby.
In the larger sense, it happens all the time. U.S. policy
toward the Palestinians endangers our interests throughout the Muslim world,
including — first and foremost — our civilian and military personnel in the
Middle East, as well as our strategic and economic interests.
But usually, as is the case with some Israeli violations of
Palestinian human rights like the Gaza blockade, the situation is not
completely clear-cut. The Palestinians charge illegality under international
law; the Israelis cite a different law.
And the U.S. can (and invariably does) say nothing, or it
takes the side of the Israelis. The entire world expects that from the United
States by now and understands precisely why we operate that way. It understands
that Israel is an important friend whose security we would never jeopardize.
It understands quite clearly that it is our absurd system
of campaign funding that dictates that we follow Israel's lead on defending the
occupation and preventing Palestinians from achieving any kind of recognition
or sovereignty. The U.S. always chooses Netanyahu's interests over the rights
of the Palestinians.
However, today's United Nations vote to admit Palestine into
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) presents
U.S. policymakers with a watershed choice. U.S. interests and the Israeli
government's desires are directly pitted against each other.
To put it simply, Israel expects the United States to quit
UNESCO and any other international agency that admits Palestine to membership.
Hard U.S. interests dictate that we not even consider such a move.
This is not a question of U.S. interests vs. Israeli
interests, which is why I refer to the Israeli government's desires. Israel opposes UNESCO
membership for Palestine as part and parcel of its policy to deny recognition
of Palestine in any forum until Israel grants permission. It's pure symbolism.
But for the United States, the implication of the policy of
withdrawing from an important U.N. agency because its members recognize
Palestine affects our national security in very direct ways.
So why is this happening?
It is happening because, under pressure from Israel and its
lobby, the United States Congress in the 1990s passed legislation requiring the
United States to not contribute to any U.N. entity that admits Palestine as a
former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-CO):
At issue are two laws from the
early 1990s that prohibit the United States from providing financial
contributions to any United Nations entity that admits Palestine as a member.
The laws are strict: if Palestine is admitted to a UN agency, the United States
must stop paying its membership dues. The restrictions provide no authority for
the president to waive these prohibitions even if it is in the national
interest to do so.
With a clear majority of countries
around the world prepared to back Palestinian ambitions at the United Nations,
the United States is poised to lose its leverage over several UN bodies that
advance American interests and promote our ideal.
As Wirth explains, UNESCO "leads global efforts to bring
clean water to the poor, promotes educational and curriculum building in the
developing world, and manages a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific,
among other important tasks. This critical work would be jeopardized if
UNESCO's top funder stops paying its bills."
But it goes farther than that.
According to Politico's Jonathan Allen, the funding cut
would have a damaging effect on "American tech companies — such as Apple, Google and Microsoft — and movie studios
that use UNESCO to open markets in the developing world and rely upon an
associated entity, the World Intellectual Property Organization, to police
international disputes over music, movies and software."
Potentially, the damage can be much, much worse if Palestine
seeks and gains recognition from such other critical U.N. entities as the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization
The IAEA is the agency that the U.S. government has relied
on to restrain nuclear weapon development (and proliferation) by Iran, North
Korea, and others. The WHO works with the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention in Atlanta to protect us from potential pandemics like the Avian
No matter. Pursuant to the congressional ban, if the
Palestinians join any of these entities, the U.S. stops its funding and is,
Thanks to a powerful lobby, the United States would not have a seat at the
table when critical matters of life and death are discussed.
Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that both the White
House and Congress will put Israel's demands above U.S. interests of the most
In fact, within hours of the vote today, the Obama
that it is cutting off funding to UNESCO — cutoffs that, no doubt, will be
followed if other U.N. agencies follow suit.
Truth be told, the Obama administration has no choice. The
law gives the president no discretion about withdrawing aid if a U.N. agency
recognizes Palestine. In fact, AIPAC made sure that the traditional "national
security" waiver was not included in the law.
That means that President Obama is in a box, although
Congress could, if it chooses, vote to waive the provisions of the law.
But that would mean putting U.S. national interests above
pleasing campaign donors. When was the last time that happened?