Citing ‘new spirit’ at UNESCO, Israeli envoy wants to rethink withdrawal
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'I was first to recommend leaving. Now, we must reevaluate'

Citing ‘new spirit’ at UNESCO, Israeli envoy wants to rethink withdrawal

After cultural agency again postpones Israel-related resolutions, Carmel Shama Hacohen says Washington and Jerusalem should at least consider a ‘certain delay’ before quitting

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

In this April 12, 2018 picture shows Palestinian alternate ambassador to UNESCO Mounir Anastas, right, UNESCO Director General France's Audrey Azoulay, left, and Israeli UNESCO ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen speak after a meeting in Paris, France. Diplomats at UNESCO are hailing a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions at the UN cultural agency. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
In this April 12, 2018 picture shows Palestinian alternate ambassador to UNESCO Mounir Anastas, right, UNESCO Director General France's Audrey Azoulay, left, and Israeli UNESCO ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen speak after a meeting in Paris, France. Diplomats at UNESCO are hailing a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions at the UN cultural agency. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Israel’s envoy to UNESCO on Tuesday suggested a rethink of the country’s planned exit from the world cultural body, citing a “new spirit” in the organization after it agreed to delay a series of resolutions critical of the Jewish state.

“I was the first to recommend leaving the organization after the United States announced its withdrawal, but now Israel must not ignore the new spirit emanating from UNESCO, and we need to reevaluate, in full coordination with the US, the question of leaving,” Ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen said Tuesday.

Jerusalem and Washington should at least consider “a certain delay” of their withdrawal in order to signal that “if all the politics and the going after Israel will be history, Israel has an interest in cooperating in a positive way on the issues of education, culture and science with all the nations of the world, and especially our neighbors,” the diplomat said in a statement sent to Israeli reporters.

Israel and the US announced at the beginning of the year that would be leaving the group by the end of 2018.

Shama Hacohen issued the statement after two resolutions, regarding the old cities of Jerusalem and Hebron, were delayed by one year at the agency’s World Heritage Committee, which is currently convening in Manama, Bahrain.

Although Shama Hacohen is not attending the conference, due to security concerns and the fact that Israel and Bahrain do not have diplomatic ties, it was decided that the two resolutions would be delayed without a debate on them for a year.

This move, brokered by the US and UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay, was done in accordance with agreements reached in Paris earlier this year, Shama Hacohen said.

The Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on Shama Hacohen’s comments.

In April, UNESCO’s Executive Board agreed to delay by at least six months voting on two resolutions, one on Gaza and another on Jerusalem, that Israel considered very “extreme.” Following negotiations by the Israeli delegation and the Arab nations that sponsored the resolution, the executive board voted unanimously to delay a decision on the two resolutions until the next session to be held in October.

The decision was welcomed by Audrey Azoulay, the newly appointed director-general of UNESCO. “I welcome the spirit of dialogue and responsibility that has allowed a consensual decision to be reached in the framework of the Executive board during its discussions concerning the Middle East,” she tweeted.

She added that the agreement between the nations heralded a new era for the international body.

“This spirit of consensus opens up a new positive dynamic within UNESCO. I thank all the delegations that have worked towards this, notably the representatives of the Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, American, and European Union delegations,” she wrote at the time. “This outcome bears witness to the Parties’ strong commitment to work together, including on the most sensitive issues.”

Last October, the US and Israel decided to withdraw from UNESCO, citing among other reasons the body’s anti-Israel bias.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but it also works to fight violent extremism, improve education for girls, promote Holocaust understanding, defend media freedoms, and encourage science on climate change.

In recent years, however, Israel has been infuriated by resolutions that ignore and diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and that have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.

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