Palestine’s U.N. Bid: UNESCO Experience May Be a Cautionary Tale

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Palestinian Muslim schoolgirls visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on Dec. 22, 2011

As Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pushes on Thursday for the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians’ status in the international body to that of “observer state,” his movement’s experience of a year of full membership in the U.N. cultural body, UNESCO, suggests that such diplomatic upgrades are not always favorable to the Palestinian cause.

Palestine, which doesn’t yet exist as a sovereign nation-state, was admitted as a full member of UNESCO in October last year, in what many saw as a dry run for this week’s vote in New York. The Palestinians hoped UNESCO membership would be a platform from which to press for diplomatic gains, but in interviews with TIME, diplomats say that the realpolitik of international organizations has turned out to be far different. “It has been an extraordinary year, and there have been some surprises,” a UNESCO diplomat told TIME on Wednesday. For the Palestinians, he said, “I don’t think it has unfolded the way they expected it to.”

(MORE: The World Heritage Hustle: Why Being on UNESCO’s List Can Be a Curse)

Last June, the Palestinian delegation to UNESCO launched its most high-profile campaign since becoming a member, at the World Heritage meeting in St. Petersburg: it sought to have the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem declared an emergency site, a relatively rare status typically reserved for treasures in imminent danger, for example if they are situated in the middle of a war zone. Over the objections of independent preservation experts who saw no immediate threat to the church, the Palestinians won the emergency status, but only by a single vote. Although UNESCO diplomats say the razor-thin victory was a shock to the Palestinians, they declared it a win, saying it showed how valuable their membership to a U.N. body was. “I have a voice in this new status,” Palestinian Ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar told TIME on Wednesday. “This is an active participation. Palestine can now give its opinions.”

But there was no way to put a positive spin on the Palestinians’ defeat at UNESCO’s executive-board meeting in Paris last month. After years of enjoying overwhelming support for their cause within U.N. meetings, the Palestinians were pitted against some of their closest allies. At issue were five resolutions condemning different aspects of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including archaeological excavations; settlements in East Jerusalem; occupation of sites in Bethlehem; and its censorship of Palestinian schools and universities. Although almost identical resolutions have sailed through UNESCO meetings for years, this time was different. Russia, China, Venezuela and even Syria switched sides, voting to shelve the debate until the next executive-board meeting early next year. The rebuff left the Palestinian diplomats shaken and embittered. “It was a very big surprise for us,” Sanbar says. “We did not expect it at all. I was quite sad about it; very, very disappointed. I don’t understand it at all.”

The explanation might lie not within politics, but in financial matters. The irritation over the Palestinians’ U.N. campaign, say some U.N. watchers who support Israel, is partly an outcome of the dire straits in which UNESCO now finds itself, as a result of admitting the Palestinians as full members — a vote that prompted the U.S. Congress to withhold annual membership dues of $70 million, which makes up about 22% of the organization’s budget. The result has been widespread cuts to UNESCO’s programs, as well as a hiring freeze. “A lot of ambassadors were pissed, if you’ll excuse my French,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a pro-Israel monitoring group in Geneva. The resolutions condemning Israel at the executive-board meeting, he believes, hit a raw nerve among many diplomats, who feared that UNESCO was becoming overly politicized. “Ambassadors in Paris said that’s enough,” Neuer says. “It included unlikely suspects like the Russians.”

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, career diplomat Nimrod Barkan, told TIME on Wednesday that Palestinian membership at UNESCO has “turned the organization into some kind of Alice in Wonderland existence, where a state that does not exist is a member. It is not constructive to the credibility of the organization.” But it’s likely that a large majority in the General Assembly will vote to support Abbas’ request, precisely because they believe — rightly or wrongly — that doing so may help bring Palestine into existence.

MORE: Palestinians Champion Jesus’ Birthplace to Boost Statehood Bid