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National Journal - Lawmakers Not Yet Convinced to Fund UNESCO After Palestinian Bid

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By Sara Sorcher

Lawmakers did not appear swayed by the arguments of Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to continue contributing to UNESCO after the organization defied U.S. opposition and accepted a Palestinian bid for membership.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to change the law barring Washington from continuing to supply roughly one-fifth of the budget of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in the wake of the October vote. Rice argued that the 1990s legislation, meant to prevent the Palestinians from circumventing direct negotiations with Israel, is backfiring on Washington by depriving it of influence.

The administration requested funding for UNESCO in its fiscal 2013 budget, and is now asking Congress to add a waiver to the original law that would allow the U.S. to participate if it's deemed in the U.S. national-security interest. UNESCO, Rice said, is an anti-extremist organization that provides Holocaust education and literacy training for police in Afghanistan, among other things. While the Palestinians' bid for membership was "reprehensible," Rice said, "The consequences should not be to put a gun to our own head and force ourselves ultimately into a position where we can no longer fund programs in our interests and ultimately lose our vote."

This presents quite the conundrum for lawmakers, who virtually all agree on the importance of demonstrating their commitment to Israel. House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, argued that withholding the roughly $80 million in U.S. funding would deter the Palestinians from continuing to push for unilateral recognition at other U.N. agencies or the General Assembly. "Many members of Congress believe that cutting off these funds is the reason the [Palestinian Authority] stopped further recognition efforts," Granger said at a hearing.

Ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., asked what the U.S. is doing to prevent the Palestinians from going after what appears to be their "next target" for recognition at the UN: the World Health Organization. Rice said she didn't know about the Palestinians' future plans. However, if the Palestinians are granted membership in the WHO or International Atomic Energy Agency, for instance, Rice said pulling U.S. funding would deal a "major blow" to global health and nuclear nonproliferation.

Rep. Steven Rothman, D-N.J., said pulling funding is a "significant stick if we wanted to use it." Rice stressed that UNESCO's collection of civil servants on the ground are not the ones "we intend to punish," but also said that punishing individual states for their vote would be difficult. An alternative to punish Palestinians could be legislation that limits their U.S. funding if they push for unilateral recognition or possible consequences for their mission in Washington.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., appeared visibly frustrated. "Do you not understand that we discredit ourselves?" he asked Rice. " … [How] it hurts our national interest, when we back away from our preexisting stated positions -- and when they violate those positions, then we look for other alternatives?"

House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., echoed this. "We're always kowtowing to every thug in the world and the United Nations. U.S. law is clear. UNESCO members knew it.... If Susan Rice wants to change U.S. law, I think that she should try," Ros-Lehtinen told National Journal. Would she support this endeavor? "Heck no."

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted in a recent hearing that Israel gets the advantages of being a dues-paying member while the U.S. punishes the Palestinians by "hitting ourselves in the head," and said he hopes "cooler heads may prevail." A handful of key senators active on foreign-policy issues, including Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Tuesday that they would need more information to comment fully. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said: "There's a good reason for that law. I'd want to see what [Rice's] arguments are." His ranking member, John McCain, R-Ariz., was clear: "Keep the law the same."


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