The 58-nation executive board of the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization gave its initial approval on a 40-to-4 vote with 14 abstentions for Palestinian membership. Full membership must be approved by the 193-nation General Conference.
The Palestinian government has observer status and ambitions for full membership at the United Nations are part of a statehood initiative launched by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the U.N. General Assembly last month.
The European Parliament, in a September resolution, said lawmakers viewed the Palestinian bid for statehood as legitimate.
The Spanish government was quoted by The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London as saying it "anticipates" that it would vote in favor of Palestinian ambitions "if the vote takes place and no common European position has been reached."
France, which abstained from the UNESCO vote, said now wasn't the time for Palestinian to embark on its own, saying two-track negotiations with Israel were favored instead. Israel, for its part, said membership at UNESCO wouldn't do the Palestinians any good.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement, called the action at UNESCO "confusing." Washington spoke out strongly against Palestinian statehood.