Despite UNESCO vote on Jerusalem, Israel hails small step forward

PA says decision reminds Israel it is an occupier, after UN cultural arm okays resolution that ignores Jewish, Christian ties to holy city

Jewish men praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 6, 2016(Sebi Berens/Flash90)
Jewish men praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 6, 2016(Sebi Berens/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority on Tuesday hailed the newly approved UNESCO vote on Jerusalem as a reminder to Israelis “that they are an occupying power,” while Israel’s envoy attempted to put a positive spin on the widely criticized decision.

The resolution, passed Thursday in the committee stage of the United Nations cultural body, 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 sites.

The resolution effectively disregards Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem holy sites, and has led Israel to cut ties with the cultural body.

In spite of an Israeli effort to delay a final vote, the UN cultural agency on Tuesday adopted the controversial Arab-sponsored resolution, though without the support of Mexico, which changed its “for” vote to an abstention in a surprise move.

The Palestinian Authority’s deputy ambassador to UNESCO, Mounir Anastas, told reporters Tuesday the resolution “reminds Israel that they are the occupying power in East Jerusalem and it asks them to stop all their violations.”

These violations include archaeological excavations around religious sites, Anastas said.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen said that although only Mexico changed its vote between Thursday and Tuesday, Israel is one step closer in its mission “to dismantle the automatic majority enjoyed by the Palestinians and Arab states.”

Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The ambassador also praised Brazil for expressing reservations over the language of the resolution, even though Brasilia did not change its vote. Such reservations will make it harder to Brazil to support such motions in future, Hacohen said.

Mexico’s changed vote means that 23 nations approved the motion on Tuesday, six voted against (including the US, UK and Germany) and 25 abstained.

Mexico’s ambassador Andres Roemer, who walked out of last Thursday’s session and considered resigning in protest at his country’s initial support for the resolution, was fired from his post on Tuesday.

All resolutions passed at this year’s General Conference were validated by the UNESCO executive board in a blanket vote.

Despite Israeli diplomatic missions being closed Tuesday due to the observance of the Sukkot festival around the world, the Foreign Ministry allowed the UNESCO mission in Paris to work in a last-ditch effort to try to prevent the resolution from being adopted, though a bid for a revote after Mexico’s Monday night announcement of a change of heart was later withdrawn.

“Our [diplomatic] efforts will continue and we expect all countries to support our position on this issue,” the ministry said in a statement after the resolution was adopted.

Michael Worbs, the chairman of UNESCO Executive Board (screen capture: YouTube)
Michael Worbs, chairman of the UNESCO executive board (screen capture: YouTube)

The resolution Thursday drew widespread Israeli anger, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the body “absurd” and others accusing UNESCO of backing anti-Semitism.

The director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also Friday signaled her dismay and opposition to the motion, 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.

Bokova’s statement came after Israel announced 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.”

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.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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