The chair of UNESCO’s Executive Board, Michael Worbs, said Friday he was sorry about the resolution ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s holy sites that was passed by UNESCO on Thursday and that is set to be approved by his executive board next week. “It’s very exceptional what happened yesterday, and I’m sorry for that,” Worbs told Israeli television.
Worbs, who had said earlier Friday that he hoped Tuesday’s scheduled Executive Board vote would be delayed, to allow more time for dialogue, told Israel’s Channel 10 television he would never deny Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem, and invoked the cultural body’s decades-old designation of the capital as a World Heritage Site. This designation trumps any recent conversations about the city, Worbs said, in a reference to Thursday’s UNESCO resolution that appeared to negate non-Muslim connections to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Speaking from his office in Paris, Worbs told Channel 10 that when Jerusalem was declared a World Heritage Site, its importance to the three monotheistic religions was highlighted.
“I am very well aware of that [importance] and personally would never deny that,” Worbs said, referring to Jewish historical connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.
“I would also like to remind that Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls were inscribed as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO by the World Heritage Committee in 1982, and at that time it was inscribed specifically as a site that has meaning for three religions,” Worbs said. This position, he said, supersedes any debate that the board has had recently.
The UNESCO resolution, sponsored by several Arab countries and passed Thursday in the committee stage, referred to the Temple Mount and Western Wall only by their Muslim names and condemned Israel as “the occupying power” for various actions taken in both places.
Israelis and many Jews around the world view the move as the latest example of an ingrained anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
Israeli leadership reacted furiously to the UN resolution, with some accusing the UN’s cultural arm of anti-Semitism on Thursday. Lawmakers from both the right and left of the political spectrum said the decision was ill-befitting of UNESCO.
The resolution must still be validated by the Executive Board that Worbs heads, but the contentious wording was not expected to change. The 58 member states of the board normally follow the votes made at committee stage, but in this case Worbs said he hoped the votes would be postponed.
“I fully understand your feelings and the feelings of many Israelis about this recent decision, but it’s an inter-governmental debate,” Worbs said in reference to the vote. “It’s not a UNESCO debate, UNESCO is the forum in which this debate takes place.”
Worbs urged Israelis not to conflate the resolution with the UN agency’s official position.
“I would like to appeal to the Israeli public opinion not to mix up UNESCO with decisions of some sort and especially not with decisions which are not unanimous. Normally in UNESCO we conclude decisions in a consensual manner, it’s very exceptional what happened yesterday and I’m sorry for that. I will use my good offices in order to reestablish the consensus which prevailed for over 40 years in UNESCO.”
Worbs also expressed the hope Friday that the resolution by UNESCO would not go to a formal vote on Tuesday as expected, but would instead be deferred to give dialogue a chance.
“We need more time and dialogue between the members of the Board to reach a consensus,” he said.
“For 40 years, UNESCO has always managed to find consensual decisions on the Middle East,” he added. “But since autumn 2010 it has become more and more difficult.”
Israel and the United States suspended their funding to UNESCO in 2011 after the Palestinians were admitted as members. Both countries have lost their voting rights as a result.
The director-general of UNESCO earlier Friday signaled her dismay and opposition to Thursday’s vote. Though she did not explicitly mention the resolution, Irina Bokova made her disapproval of the motion clear, saying that efforts to deny history and Jerusalem’s complex multi-faith character harm UNESCO.
“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.
“To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” she said.
Israel informed Bokova earlier Friday that it was suspending its cooperation with UNESCO over the vote, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett saying the motion was a denial of history that “gives a boost to terrorism.”
Bennett, who serves as president of Israel’s National Commission for UNESCO, said all meetings with UNESCO officials, participation in international forums and professional cooperation would be suspended until further notice.