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UNESCO should "think again" on Palestinians: Clinton

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO should "think again" on plans to vote on Palestinian membership, noting that such a move could cause the United States to cut funds for the organization.

Clinton, speaking to reporters in the Dominican Republic where she was on an official visit, said she found it "inexplicable" that UNESCO would consider moving ahead on a Palestinian vote while the issue was still before the United Nations Security Council.

"I ... would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote because the decision about status must be made in the United nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations," Clinton said.

UNESCO's board decided on Wednesday to let 193 member countries vote on Palestinian admission this month, advancing a Palestinian quest for recognition of statehood that has been opposed by the United States and Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last month applied to the Security Council for full membership of the United Nations, ignoring a U.S. warning that it would veto the move, as well as threats from members of the U.S. Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.

At UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 40 representatives of the 58-member board voted in favor of putting the matter to a vote, with four -- the United States, Germany, Romania and Latvia -- voting against and 14 abstaining, a source at the agency told Reuters.

Clinton said moves like that by UNESCO would sidestep key issues that can only be resolved through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Unfortunately there are those who, in their enthusiasm to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people, are skipping over the most important step which is determining what the state will look like, what its borders are, how it will deal with the myriad issues that states must address," she said.

The "Quartet" of Middle East peace mediators -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- has meanwhile advanced a new timeline for the two sides to resume direct peace negotiations, but there is scant evidence that either Israel or the Palestinians is ready to move in that direction yet.

Clinton noted that the United States, which pays 22 percent of UNESCO's dues, might be required by law to cut off funding for the agency if it were to accept the Palestinians as a member.

"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," Clinton said.

"It is still our hope and our strong recommendation that we take this to the appropriate forum which is the negotiating table."

(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Anthony Boadle)