An Arab ambassador to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, apologized on Friday to his Israeli counterpart for voting in support of a resolution that characterized the Old City of Hebron, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site, as a Palestinian heritage site “endangered” by Israel.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth published a screenshot from Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen’s phone showing the interaction with the unidentified Arab ambassador.
Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia are the three Arab states on UNESCO’s heritage committee, which voted for the controversial resolution on Friday afternoon at its meeting in Krakow, Poland.
According to the screenshot, after the vote, at 8:11 p.m., the Arab envoy sent Shama-Hacohen a message via the Whatsapp messaging app: “sorry for today, it was too heated, it is difficult to say it was a secret vote…”
A minute later, Shama-Hacohen replied: “I know my friend. For me it is like u did it.”
Nine minutes passed before the Arab ambassador answered simply: “No choice…”
The vote passed by 12 to three with six abstentions.
According to Shama-Hacohen, Israel had obtained promises of support from five countries on the heritage list, including an Arab ambassador who, according to Yedioth, conditioned his “no” vote on a completely secret ballot.
Israel then demanded that the vote take place behind a curtain, where the many cameras in the hall would not be able to catch each envoy’s mark on their vote slip. Israel says the curtain was agreed to by the Polish committee chair, Jacek Purchla, but was not present when voting commenced on Friday.
Shama-Hacohen protested loudly, and the voting took place during a heated exchange between the ambassadors.
In his speech to the committee after the vote, the Israeli envoy ended his comments by saying he had to take a call from his “plumber,” telling the assembled ambassadors that the call was more important than the decision they had made in the committee.
“There was no plumber,” Shama-Hacohen confirmed in an interview with Army Radio Sunday. “It was a way to end my speech in a way they’ll remember that shows our contempt for the essence of the decision.”
Despite the setback, he said Israel’s standing in the world body has risen. “We’ve turned the corner, from lowering our heads and accepting these decisions quietly to taking up the diplomatic fight. There isn’t a vote that passes without an increase in the number of states that support us, including this vote in Krakow,” the ambassador said.
The vote’s results sparked outrage in Israel and the US, and expressions of joy from the Palestinian Authority.
“Despite a frantic Israeli campaign spreading lies and distorting the facts about Palestinian rights, the world has recognized our right to register Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque [the Muslim term for the Tomb of the Patriarchs] under Palestinian sovereignty,” the PA’s foreign ministry said.
“This vote is a success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states,” the statement said.
The Palestinian terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, also hailed the decision, calling it an “affirmation of our full rights in Hebron and all Palestinian land.”
Israel said the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed UNESCO for “yet another delusional decision,” and vowed to protect the site.
“This time they ruled the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a Palestinian site, meaning not a Jewish site, and it is in danger,” he tweeted.
The Foreign Ministry labeled the vote a “moral blot” on the world body, while President Reuven Rivlin said that UNESCO seemed “intent on spreading anti-Jewish lies.”
Netanyahu announced that Israel would further reduce its membership dues to the agency by $1 million in protest at the decision, and would instead spend the funds on establishing a museum of Jewish heritage in the Hebron area.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley also harshly condemned the resolution, calling it “tragic” and an “affront to history,” and vowed that Washington would review its ties with UNESCO as a result of the decision.
In a statement, Haley said the resolution “undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful,” and “further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency.”
“The United States is currently evaluating the appropriate level of its continued engagement at UNESCO,” she warned.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is revered as the biblical burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.
Earlier this week, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee passed a resolution denying Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem. Although the text was much softer than similar resolutions passed in previous years, Israel condemned it strongly.