Palestinians raise flag at UNESCO

Palestinians raised their flag at the headquarters of the UN cultural agency in Paris on Tuesday as the agency’s 195th member, a historic move and symbolic boost for their push for an independent state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers his speech

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers his speech

PARIS — Palestinians raised their flag at the headquarters of the UN cultural agency in Paris on Tuesday as the agency’s 195th member, a historic move and symbolic boost for their push for an independent state.

Cheers rose as the red, black, white and green flag went up in pouring rain under the gaze of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. She welcomed Palestine without mentioning the U.S. funding cutoff that its membership prompted and that is hobbling the organization.

“This is truly a historic moment,” Abbas said later, his speech punctuated by rousing applause and standing ovations. He said he and the Palestinian people were deeply moved that their flag could join the 194 others at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, headquartered in a massive concrete structure on Paris’ Left Bank. “We hope this will be a good auspice for Palestine to become a member of other organizations,” he said.

The Palestinians plan to join all international organizations it is entitled by UNESCO membership to enter, Abbas said later at a news conference, putting the number at 16.

“But we will choose the right moment and the right situation. We want the moment to be propitious,” he said, refusing to say when that might be.

Abbas also said the Palestinians are closely evaluating the status of their application for UN membership and the decision to seek a Security Council vote “could come at any moment.”

The council must recommend any application for membership, but it is divided over the Palestinian bid. The United States has promised to veto a resolution recommending membership if the Palestinians get the required nine “yes” votes in the 15-member council — which diplomats say they don’t yet have.

Palestine was admitted as a member of UNESCO in an Oct. 31 vote that prompted the United States to cut off funds to the agency — $80 million annually in dues, or 22 per cent of UNESCO’s overall budget. With the U.S. 2011 contribution not yet paid, UNESCO was immediately thrown into crisis.

Two U.S. laws required the halt in the flow of funds to the agency, forcing it to scale back literacy and development programs in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the new nation of South Sudan.

The Palestinians also are seeking full-fledged UN membership, but Washington has threatened to veto that move, saying a negotiated settlement with Israel should come first.

“Integrating UNESCO … is a sign the world accepts this adhesion and opens the question of why we cannot be admitted to the UN,” Abbas said at the news conference. He called UNESCO admission a “signal on the road to recognition.” It is a “step forward in realizing this dream of an independent Palestinian state,” he said.

Abbas said that the Palestinians are deploying their efforts to restart peace talks with Israel.

“We are ready to continue the negotiations with Israel and discuss security and border questions on condition that Israel stops colonization activities,” he said, referring to a major blockage in the long-stalled peace process.

At the opening of the ceremony, he also stressed that religion is part of the Palestinian heritage and Jerusalem “must remain the capital of the three revealed religions,” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.