Israel appoints new ambassador to UNESCO, OECD amid rift with UN cultural agency

Appointment of career diplomat with economics background indicates mission will shift its focus away from UNESCO, which Israel is set to leave by end of year

French Jews hold Israeli flags, as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
French Jews hold Israeli flags, as they take part at a demonstration against UNESCO, near the cultural agency's Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry on Thursday chose a professional diplomat with an economics background to represent the country at UNESCO and the OECD in Paris, signaling the country’s intent to shift the mission focus away from the controversial international cultural agency.

The ministry announced that Eli Lev will replace Carmel Shama-Hacohen in the summer, pending approval from the government.

Shama-Cohen, a politician from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was a political appointment and made a name through theatrical confrontations and stunts as he sought to highlight the frequent anti-Israel resolutions at the UN’s culture and education body.

Israel has formally notified UNESCO of its withdrawal from the organization on December 31, 2018.

Eli Lev (Linkedin)

Lev, who currently heads the Foreign Ministry’s economic affairs section for Europe and has an MBA from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will likely focus on the mission’s other responsibility; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — a club of the world’s wealthiest nations, which Israel has been a member of since 2010.

Israel last year announced it would follow the US by walking out of UNESCO over resolutions critical of the Jewish state.

In a statement in January, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said she had been officially notified on Friday that Israel would leave on December 31, 2018.

“I regret this deeply, as it is my conviction that it is inside UNESCO and not outside it that states can best seek to overcome differences in the organization’s fields of competence,” she said.

Azoulay’s announcement came after Israel scrambled to ensure it wouldn’t be forced to remain in the organization for an extra year, due to concerns it wouldn’t be able to file the necessary paperwork on time.


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

In order to leave at the same time as the US — at the end of 2018 — Israel had to formally hand a letter of intent to Azoulay by December 31, 2017, at least one year ahead of time.

Shama-Hacohen 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.

Still, the Israeli withdrawal reportedly contains a provision noting that Jerusalem will walk back the decision should UNESCO conduct reforms and change its attitude towards Israel before the end of next year.

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