Despite deadline panic, ambassador says Israel still to leave UNESCO in 2018

Even with a box of chocolates, Jerusalem’s envoy fails to persuade guards to accept official papers while office closed for holiday season

Israel’s envoy to the UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempts to deliver official papers announcing Israels withdrawal from the cultural organization, December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)
Israel’s envoy to the UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempts to deliver official papers announcing Israels withdrawal from the cultural organization, December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

Jerusalem’s envoy to UNESCO said Thursday there was no concern that Israel will be forced to remain in the organization for another 12 months, despite his failed efforts to file the necessary papers on time.

Carmel Shama-Hacohen said in a statement that he had made a last-ditch attempt to submit a formal letter announcing Israel’s intent to leave the organization, showing up at the door of the cultural agency’s Paris offices with a box of chocolates along with the paperwork. But he couldn’t find anyone willing to sign for receipt, as the offices are closed for the year-end holidays.

UNESCO’s headquarters are closed until January 2.

A week ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would leave the organization, two months after the US formally announced its own withdrawal — partly due to UNESCO’s anti-Israel bias.

In order to leave at the same time as the US — at the end of 2018 — Israel has to formally hand a letter of intent to its director-general, Audrey Azoulay, at least one year ahead of time.

“Today we made an attempt to submit our formal letter of withdrawal, ending the State of Israel’s membership of UNESCO,” Shama-Hacohen said. “I went there today, along with my assistant, and we first gave the security guards a box of chocolates for the new year and to sweeten the fact that we were disturbing them.”

The envoy said he explained the situation to the guards, but they said they were not permitted to sign for any mail, nor were they allowed to accept any official documentation.

Envelope containing official notification of Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO, which envoy Carmel Shama-Hacohen attempted to deliver to the cultural organization on December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

Shama-Hacohen said he was eventually able to enter the organization’s offices, “and we reached a deal with them that would allow us to write on the letter that we had attempted to hand it to them but they had refused.”

He then emailed the letter to the director-general and she agreed that she would view this as an official notification that Israel intended to leave, he said.

“Israel made every effort in order to complete the leaving process as early as possible, alongside the US, and to prevent an unwanted year stuck inside this miserable organization which has been hijacked by Arab and Islamic nations,” Shama-Hacohen said.

The envoy also pointed out the positive relationship Israel had with Azoulay, who was appointed the organization’s new head in October, and said he hoped that she would succeed in ridding the organization of its political agenda and “turn it back into a professional organization.”

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.

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

Shama-Hacohen — a former lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party — said last week that UNESCO “has broken records of hypocrisy, incitement and lies against Israel and the Jewish people, while polluting its noble core principles with politicization and diplomatic terrorism that sometimes bordered on anti-Semitism.”

The envoy said Israel and the Jewish people “should have been the first to contribute to the organization and the last to leave it, but in the theater of the absurd of UNESCO, nations that have nothing to do with science, education and culture have bankrupted this important organization.”

Professional diplomats, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic about leaving UNESCO, arguing that while the US could easily obtain observer status at the organization, Israel has no such prospects. In order to get observer status, a state needs the support of a majority of member states, something that is highly unlikely in Israel’s case due to the automatic Arab majority.

AP and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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