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Palestine becomes member of UNESCO, despite threat of US funding cut
PARIS (AP) ' Palestine became a full member of UNESCO on Monday, in a highly divisive move 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.
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.
The U.N. agency protects historic heritage sites and works to improve world literacy and cultural understanding, but it also has come under criticism in the past as a forum for anti-Israel sentiment. The United States pulled out of UNESCO under President Ronald Reagan but rejoined under President George W. Bush.
Monday's vote is a symbolic breakthrough 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.
Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the U.S. has said it will veto it unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO and other U.N. bodies.
Monday's vote is definitive. The membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO's founding charter.
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.
Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy.
"UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction," he said. "They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence."
"They've forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization," he said.
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.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week called UNESCO's deliberation "inexplicable," saying discussion of Palestinian membership in international organizations couldn't replace negotiations with Israel as a fast-track toward Palestinian independence.
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.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah contributed.