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U.S., Israel lose voting rights at UNESCO over Palestine row

PARIS (Reuters) - UNESCO has suspended the voting rights of the United States and Israel, two years after both countries stopped paying dues to the U.N.'s cultural arm in protest over its granting full membership to the Palestinians.

The U.S. decision to cancel its funding in October 2011 was blamed on U.S. laws that prohibit funding to any U.N. agency that implies recognition of the Palestinians' demands for their own state.

Israel also pulled its funding, objecting to what it called unilateral attempts by the Palestinians to gain recognition of statehood.

Both countries missed a 1100 GMT Friday deadline to provide an official justification for non-payment and a plan to pay back missed dues, a UNESCO source told Reuters. That automatically triggered suspension of their voting rights.

Asked for his reaction, the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Washington considers UNESCO a "critical partner in creating a better future."

"We intend to continue our engagement with UNESCO in every possible way," Killion said.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, is responsible for designating World Heritage sites, promoting global education and supporting press freedom, among other tasks.

FUNDING CRISIS

The withdrawal of U.S. funding - which totalled about $240 million (£149,737,958.57), or some 22 percent of UNESCO's budget - has plunged it into a funding crisis and forced it to cut programs.

UNESCO made no comment on the matter. The list of countries whose voting rights are suspended will be announced at a UNESCO meeting on Saturday, after which Director-General Irina Bokova is expected to issue a statement.

The body's 15-day general conference, which unites member state representatives every two years, began on Tuesday in Paris.

The U.S. loss of voting rights comes as Washington tries to keep peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians afloat.

Both parties have signalled poor progress in the talks, which were revived in July after a three-year hiatus but recently became stymied over Israeli plans to continue building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Israel that it could face a third Palestinian uprising if the talks fail.

The Palestinians have so far failed in their bid to become a full member of the U.N., but their UNESCO membership is seen as a potential first step towards U.N. recognition of statehood.

The United States has characterized UNESCO's move as a misguided attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. Washington says only a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can result in Palestinian statehood.

(Reporting by Alexandria Sage and Marine Pennetier; editing by Mark John and Mark Trevelyan)

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