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Palestine becomes member of UNESCO

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Palestinian school girls walk past a graffiti on a wall depicting UN humanitarian aid supplies, in Gaza City, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. (AP) Palestinian school girls walk past a graffiti on a wall depicting UN humanitarian aid supplies, in Gaza City, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. (AP)

PARIS (AP) — Palestine became a full member of UNESCO on Monday, in a highly divisive breakthrough that could cost the agency a fifth of its budget and that the U.S. and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts.

Lawmakers in the United States, which provides about 22 percent of UNESCO's funding, had threatened to halt some $80 million in annual funding if Palestinian membership was approved. It wasn't clear in the immediate aftermath of Monday's vote whether the threat would become reality.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called UNESCO's decision "premature" and said it undermines the international community's goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. He called it a distraction from the goal of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Monday's vote is a grand symbolic victory for the Palestinians, but it alone won't make Palestine into a state. The issue of borders of an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.

Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 UNESCO member delegations present.

"Long Live Palestine!" shouted one delegate, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO's General Conference.

Even if the vote's impact isn't felt right away in the Mideast, it will be quickly felt at UNESCO. Aside from the U.S. funding cut threat, Israel's Foreign Ministry said it "will consider its further ... cooperation with the organization" after Monday's vote.

The U.N. agency protects historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy, access to schooling for girls and cultural understanding, but it also has come under criticism in the past as a forum for anti-Israel sentiment.

It depends heavily on U.S. funding, but has survived without it in the past: The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan, rejoining two decades later under President George W. Bush.

Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the U.S. has pledged a veto unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO. All the efforts are part of a broader push by the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas for greater international recognition in recent years.

"Joy fills my heart. This is really an historic moment," said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki. "We hope that today's victory at UNESCO marks but a beginning. Our admission to UNESCO is not an alternative, is no substitute for something else."

UNESCO, like other U.N. agencies, is a part of the world body but has separate membership procedures and can make its own decisions about which countries belong. Full U.N. membership is not required for membership in many of the U.N. agencies.

Monday's vote is definitive, and the membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.

Israel's outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said before the vote that if it passed, Israel should cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority. It was not clear whether he was voicing an individual opinion or government policy. He has a history of making comments embarrassing to the prime minister.

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Monday's vote will "complicate" U.S. efforts to support the agency. The United States voted against the measure.

Existing U.S. law can bar Washington from funding any U.N. body that accepts members that do not have the "internationally recognized attributes of statehood." That requirement is generally interpreted to mean U.N. membership.

Ghasan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, urged the United States to keep UNESCO funding.

He called it "a vote of confidence from the international community."

"We look at this vote as especially important because part of our battle with the Israeli occupation is about the occupation attempts to erase the Palestinian history or Judaizing it. The UNESCO vote will help us to maintain the Palestinian traditional heritage, " he said.

Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy. "They've forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization," he said.

"UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction," he said. "They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence."

Also Monday, a Bosnian presidential adviser said Bosnia will be forced to abstain from any U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood — dealing a tough blow to Palestinian hopes of rallying the required nine-vote majority in a U.N. Security Council vote in New York. Palestinian officials have said they already have eight votes, and were counting heavily on Bosnia to give them the ninth.


Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris, Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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