It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point, boththe president and Congress would be faced with a clear choice between U.S.national interests and the demands made by Israeli Prime Minister BinyaminNetanyahu and his powerful Washington lobby.
In the larger sense, it happens all the time. U.S. policytoward the Palestinians endangers our interests throughout the Muslim world,including — first and foremost — our civilian and military personnel in theMiddle East, as well as our strategic and economic interests.
But usually, as is the case with some Israeli violations ofPalestinian human rights like the Gaza blockade, the situation is notcompletely clear-cut. The Palestinians charge illegality under internationallaw; the Israelis cite a different law.
And the U.S. can (and invariably does) say nothing, or ittakes the side of the Israelis. The entire world expects that from the UnitedStates by now and understands precisely why we operate that way. It understandsthat Israel is an important friend whose security we would never jeopardize.
It understands quite clearly that it is our absurd systemof campaign funding that dictates that we follow Israel's lead on defending theoccupation and preventing Palestinians from achieving any kind of recognitionor sovereignty. The U.S. always chooses Netanyahu's interests over the rightsof the Palestinians.
However, today's United Nations vote to admit Palestine intothe United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) presentsU.S. policymakers with a watershed choice. U.S. interests and the Israeligovernment's desires are directly pitted against each other.
To put it simply, Israel expects the United States to quitUNESCO 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. Israeliinterests, which is why I refer to the Israeli government's desires. Israel opposes UNESCOmembership for Palestine as part and parcel of its policy to deny recognitionof Palestine in any forum until Israel grants permission. It's pure symbolism.
But for the United States, the implication of the policy ofwithdrawing from an important U.N. agency because its members recognizePalestine affects our national security in very direct ways.
So why is this happening?
It is happening because, under pressure from Israel and itslobby, the United States Congress in the 1990s passed legislation requiring theUnited States to not contribute to any U.N. entity that admits Palestine as amember.
According toformer Sen. Tim Wirth (D-CO):
At issue are two laws from theearly 1990s that prohibit the United States from providing financialcontributions 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 Statesmust stop paying its membership dues. The restrictions provide no authority forthe president to waive these prohibitions even if it is in the nationalinterest to do so.
With a clear majority of countriesaround the world prepared to back Palestinian ambitions at the United Nations,the United States is poised to lose its leverage over several UN bodies thatadvance American interests and promote our ideal.
As Wirth explains, UNESCO "leads global efforts to bringclean water to the poor, promotes educational and curriculum building in thedeveloping world, and manages a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific,among other important tasks. This critical work would be jeopardized ifUNESCO's top funder stops paying its bills."
But it goes farther than that.
According to Politico's Jonathan Allen, the funding cutwould have a damaging effect on "American tech companies — such as Apple, Google and Microsoft — and movie studiosthat use UNESCO to open markets in the developing world and rely upon anassociated entity, the World Intellectual Property Organization, to policeinternational disputes over music, movies and software."
Potentially, the damage can be much, much worse if Palestineseeks and gains recognition from such other critical U.N. entities as theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization(WHO).
The IAEA is the agency that the U.S. government has reliedon to restrain nuclear weapon development (and proliferation) by Iran, NorthKorea, and others. The WHO works with the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention in Atlanta to protect us from potential pandemics like the Avianflu.
No matter. Pursuant to the congressional ban, if thePalestinians join any of these entities, the U.S. stops its funding and is,essentially, out.
Thanks to a powerful lobby, the United States would not have a seat at thetable when critical matters of life and death are discussed.
Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that both the WhiteHouse and Congress will put Israel's demands above U.S. interests of the mostfundamental kind.
In fact, within hours of the vote today, the Obamaadministration announcedthat it is cutting off funding to UNESCO — cutoffs that, no doubt, will befollowed if other U.N. agencies follow suit.
Truth be told, the Obama administration has no choice. Thelaw gives the president no discretion about withdrawing aid if a U.N. agencyrecognizes Palestine. In fact, AIPAC made sure that the traditional "nationalsecurity" waiver was not included in the law.
That means that President Obama is in a box, althoughCongress could, if it chooses, vote to waive the provisions of the law.
But that would mean putting U.S. national interests abovepleasing campaign donors. When was the last time that happened?