The Palestinian drive for United Nations membership is backfiring on one of its most vocal early supporters, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. What began as a French bid to one-up a weak U.S. foreign policy is now devolving into a struggle over continued U.S. funding for the only significant U.N. organization headquartered in Paris: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
In recent weeks, while the Palestinians have pressed forward with a bid for full membership in Unesco, both French diplomats and U.N. officials have been quietly back-pedaling on the issue. Like so many maneuvers at the U.N., this reversal appears to be less about grand matters of principle than about money.
According to American law since the 1990s, the U.S. is prohibited from giving funds to any part of the U.N. system that grants the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the same standing as member states. This could amount to a shortfall of more than $70 million per year to Unesco.
Currently, Unesco operates with an annual budget of more than $325 million, to which the U.S. is by far the largest contributor, giving 22%. France, while prizing Unesco as its showpiece U.N. tenant, chips in just 6.1%.
In years past, France has already tasted what it means for Unesco to forgo U.S. funding. In the 1980s, the U.S. withdrew from Unesco, returning only in 2003 under President George W. Bush. Apparently, the Quai d'Orsay has no wish to repeat that experience. French diplomats are now saying that, despite their earlier backing of the Palestinian unilateral bid, Unesco is "not the right time, nor the right place" to wrestle with the question of Palestine.
Yet only in March, Mr. Sarkozy had elbowed past a dithering President Obama, signaling that France would likely support the international recognition of a Palestinian state. "The idea that we have time [to negotiate a deal between Israel and the Palestinians] is a dangerous idea. We must finish," Mr. Sarkozy said at the time. French diplomats privately indicated that the Palestinian statehood initiative would "level the playing field" between Israel and the Palestinians, and lead the way to an equitable solution to the conflict. In July, France announced it would upgrade the PLO delegation in Paris to a diplomatic mission. Spain, Portugal, Norway and a handful of other European states soon did the same.
By early September, with a showdown looming at the U.N. General Assembly annual opening in New York, the Palestinians claimed to have 128 of the U.N.'s 193 member countries backing their bid for statehood. As the European country spearheading this effort, France looked likely to emerge as a leading backer of the statehood initiative.
Instead, President Obama's pledge to veto the Palestinian application in the Security Council turned out to be unwavering. While the application submitted on Sept. 24 by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains under consideration in the Council, the French understood that a climb-down to a General Assembly vote granting observer status was the more viable scenario.
Thus, the French failed to deliver on Mr. Sarkozy's spring swagger. Rather than push for full Palestinian membership, Mr. Sarkozy retreated, proposing in his Sept. 21 address to the General Assembly: "Why not consider offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state?" Ratcheting back his own earlier rhetoric, he insisted that this compromise "would be an important step forward."
But the French had created a monster. Mr. Abbas was not satisfied with merely having applied for U.N. membership. He took his cause to Unesco, having learned that the window for membership would be open this fall, only to be closed again for the next two years. Full membership must first be recommended by the Unesco executive board, then approved by a two-thirds majority of Unesco's 193-state General Conference, due to convene in Paris on Oct. 25.
Earlier this month Unesco's 58-nation executive board approved a draft resolution for Palestinian membership, sponsored by several Arab states, by a 40-to-4 vote. The four countries opposed were the U.S., Germany, Latvia and Romania. Among the 14 countries abstaining was none other than France.
The French position is now hard to pin down. Mr. Sarkozy backs the deliberation process at the Security Council, but hesitates to support Palestinian membership in a relatively minor appendage of the organization.
Within Unesco itself, similar hesitations are emerging. Senior Unesco officials made the rounds in Washington this week, meeting with Obama administration officials, legislators and other influential Beltway types, trying to convince them that Unesco's activities are in America's interest and hoping to find a loophole that could help circumvent the law that could leave them without U.S. taxpayer funds.
The Unesco mess is only one unintended consequence of France's bid to support the Palestinian drive for statehood. There will undoubtedly be others.
—Mr. Schanzer is vice president for research and Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.