|Palestinians held a rally outside UNESCO in Gaza City in support of Palestine's UN bid last month [Reuters]
Palestine has won a first diplomatic victory in its quest for statehood when the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation [UNESCO] executive committee backed its bid to become a member of the cultural body with the rights of a state.
Palestine's Arab allies braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the committee's member states, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four - the US, Germany, Romania and Latvia – against it, with 14 abstentions.
The Palestinian bid will now be submitted to the UNESCO general assembly at the end of the month for final approval involving all 193 members based in Paris.
The move was swiftly criticised by the US and Israel. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said UNESCO should "think again" about voting on Palestinian admission.
Clinton, speaking to reporters during a trip to the Dominican Republic, also called the move "confusing," as the UN Security Council weighs a request from the Palestinians for full UN membership, which the US opposes.
"I found quite confusing and somehow inexplicable that you would have organs of the United Nations making decisions about statehood or statehood status while the issue has been presented to the United Nations," Clinton said.
"I think this is a very odd procedure indeed," she said.
"The decision about status must be made in the United Nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations."
David Killion, the US ambassador to UNESCO, issued a statement urging all delegations to join the United States in voting "no" while in Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland sharply criticised the Palestinian effort.
"This is not going to create a state for them," she said at her daily briefing. "It is going to make things harder ... It further exacerbates the environment of tension."
Nimrod Barkan, Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, said the move would harm the agency and would not advance Palestinian aspirations.
"The problem is that the politicisation of UNESCO is detrimental to the ability of the organisation to carry out its mandate," he told Reuters.
France, which has advocated observer status of the UN, said that UNESCO was not the place to further the Palestinian case for recognition.
"The priority is to revive negotiations," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. "We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment."
Both US and Israel argue that the way to create Palestine is through negotiations.
Last month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally applied to the UN Security Council for full membership of the UN, ignoring a US warning that it would veto the move, as well as threats from members of the US Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.
Thursday's recognition by the executive committee raised questions about whether Washington might be required by US law to cut off funding for the agency if it were to accept the Palestinians as a member. The US pays 22 per cent of UNESCO's dues, the State Department said.
The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. In order to gain full membership, so-called "states" that are not members of the UN may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly.
Apart from diplomatic gains, UNESCO membership would allow Palestinians to apply to classify its monuments as World Heritage Sites at a time when the heritage of much of the region is under dispute.
It was not clear whether Palestine would need to be a recognised state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.
An official at the Palestinian mission declined to comment.
To keep pressure on the UN, Abbas's Palestinian Authority has been looking at institutions that may recognise their sought-after statehood status - a campaign triggered by a breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a year ago.
On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, the European Union's main human rights body.
The US government has said the Palestinians can gain an independent state on land occupied by Israel in a 1967 war only via negotiations with Israel, Washington's main ally in the Middle East.
In a related development, envoys from the Middle East "Quartet" - the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States – will meet in Brussels on Sunday to try to revive peace efforts.