The Price of ‘Palestine’
The U.S. may be forced to withhold funds if Palestine is recognized as a state.


Brett D. Schaefer

Palestine is in — almost! The 58-member executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted 40–4, with 14 abstentions, to let the organization’s General Conference vote on admitting “Palestine” as a full member state.

The United States was one of the four countries voting against this resolution. However, unlike in the case of U.N. votes, the U.S. cannot veto a UNESCO resolution. Thus, “Palestine” will likely become a “made member” of UNESCO this fall.

Following the executive board’s vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States might be legally required to withhold funding for UNESCO if the organization grants Palestine membership. “We are certainly aware of strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition,” she said. “It is still our hope and our strong recommendation that we take this to the appropriate forum, which is the negotiating table.”

Current U.S. law contains two restrictions that could lead the United States to withhold funds. U.S. Code Title 22, Section 287e states:

  • “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.” This was adopted by a Democratic Congress in 1989 as Public Law 101-246.
  • “The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution: (1) to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, or (2) to the United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which such membership is effective.” This was adopted by a Democratic Congress in 1994 as Public Law 103-236.

The first restriction applies to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Some have argued that Palestine is not the same as the PLO. This is a distinction without much of a difference. The links between the two are extensive and could easily justify suspension of funding. For instance, Yasser Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords through which the Palestinian Authority was established, served concurrently as president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO. Moreover, even after the Oslo Accords, the PLO still claims a status superior to that of to the Palestinian Authority as the representative of all of the Palestinian people. That claim has been entrenched in various U.N. resolutions over decades.

Pointedly, in his letter seeking U.N. membership, Mahmoud Abbas signed as “President of the State of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.” He specifically based his authority to apply for membership on the “status of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” because it was the PLO that was granted observer status in the General Assembly in 1974 under resolution 3237. In 1988, the General Assembly decided to use the designation “Palestine” instead of PLO. The PLO remains the basis for the U.N.-observer status of Palestine and Abbas’s application for membership.

Secretary Clinton, however, seems inclined to rely on the second provision rather than the first.

Clearly, the United States deems widespread international recognition of statehood to be insufficient. After all, Palestine claims recognition from some 120 countries, albeit not the United States. Presumably, Clinton is implying that admitting Palestine to UNESCO as a member would trigger the withholding of funds, because Palestine lacks the characteristics of a state long recognized under customary international law. These principles are concisely stated in Article I of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”