Israel scrambles to prevent EU-Arab consensus resolution at UNESCO
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Israel scrambles to prevent EU-Arab consensus resolution at UNESCO

On Independence Day, cultural body to vote once again on Jerusalem. While text will likely not ignore Jewish links to the holy sites, Israel urges Western countries to oppose it

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israel's ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen throws a copy of the day's resolution on Jerusalem in the trash on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. (Erez Lichtfeld)
Israel's ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen throws a copy of the day's resolution on Jerusalem in the trash on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. (Erez Lichtfeld)

Israeli diplomats are worried about an emerging European-Arab agreement to pass a highly critical anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations cultural agency next week that would, among other things, deny Israel’s sovereignty in any part of its capital.

UNESCO’s executive board is scheduled to pass its annual Jerusalem resolution on Tuesday, May 2, which coincides with Israel’s Independence Day. While the Arab Group at UNESCO proposes similar resolutions every year, this time it appears ready to compromise on the wording in order to get all Europeans members of the board to vote in favor. Israeli diplomats in European capitals are currently scrambling to prevent a European consensus on the resolution.

“UNESCO’s Executive Board refuses to stop the politicization that undermines the states of the organization,” an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Contradicting the recommendation of UNESCO’s director-general and the promises and statements of various other leaders last year, UNESCO repeats its ritual of passing political anti-Israel resolutions that dispute any action Israel takes in Jerusalem, adopts previous resolutions that deny the Jewish link to the city, and recycles political condemnations against Israel regarding Gaza.”

The exact wording of Tuesday’s resolution has not been released yet. Senior diplomatic sources told The Times of Israel that the text will likely dispute Israel’s claim to sovereignty in any part of Jerusalem, and affirm previous resolutions that referred to the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name, Haram al-Sharif, while not adhering to that limitation this time.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee voting on a resolution ignoring Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem's Old City in Paris, October 26, 2016 (screen shot UNESCO website)
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voting on a resolution ignoring Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem’s Old City in Paris, October 26, 2016 (screenshot UNESCO website)

Last October, 24 member states of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s General Conference backed a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and accusing “the occupying power” — Israel — of a long list of wrongdoings. Six countries voted against and 26 abstained, and the resolution was adopted by the UNESCO’s Executive Board a few days later.

Despite the stinging diplomatic defeat, that vote turned out better, from an Israeli perspective, than a vote on the same matter half a year earlier, which similarly turned a blind eye to the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Seven countries that in April 2016 voted in favor of the resolution abstained in the second vote, among them heavyweights France and India.

While the number of countries voting against the draft remained low at six — the US, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia — this time around supporters of the resolution failed to garner an overall majority. In April, 33 states voted yes and 17 abstained. In October for the first time more countries abstained than supported the text.

And yet, Israel protested furiously, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the decision “absurd” and President Reuven Rivlin deeming it an “embarrassment” for UNESCO. Education Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to cut all ties to the organization.

Several top UNESCO officials, including Director-General Irina Bokova, as well as a handful of world leaders, also criticized the text, affirming that Jerusalem’s Old City is holy to all three Abrahamic religions.

Irina Bokova speaks with reporters in New York on April 12, 2016. (Kena Betancur/AFP)
Irina Bokova speaks with reporters in New York on April 12, 2016. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

“The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible, and each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city,” Bokova said in a statement after the October vote.

The resolution to be voted on next week, which is shaping up to be based on a joint Arab-European text, will likely not refer to the holy sites only by their Muslim names, but will espouse other positions that are anathema to the Israeli government.

If European and Arab diplomats reach an agreement on a milder version and pass the anti-Israel resolution in consensus, the positive trend from October would be stopped. Israel prefers to see Western countries vote against an outrageous resolution, even if it passes, than a milder text supported by everyone.

“Instead of stopping UNESCO’s politicization as was promised to Israel, representatives of the European Union in fact support it by proposing their own draft resolution, including on the question of Jerusalem, when there is no connection whatsoever between them and UNESCO’s mandate,” the Israeli official said. “Israel expects the member states to vote against this absurd resolution. The proposed resolution will not harm our determination to act in Jerusalem for the benefit of all its residents. It will, however, hurt the standing and the relevance of UNESCO.”

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