Stalled by Christmas: Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO runs into holiday obstacle

Stalled by Christmas: Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO runs into holiday obstacle

Cultural agency’s Paris headquarters closed until January 2, but Jerusalem’s envoy vows to formally give notice in time ‘even if I have to climb over the fence’

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

Israel’s planned withdrawal from UNESCO by the end of the year has hit a snag with diplomats unable to file the necessary papers on time because the cultural agency’s Paris offices are closed for the year-end holidays. But Israel’s envoy to the organization vowed to overcome these problems and to ensure that Israel will give up its membership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday instructed Israel’s envoy to the UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, to submit a formal letter announcing Israel’s intent to 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 the organization at the same time as the US — at the end of 2018 — Israel would have to formally hand a letter of intent to its director-general, Audrey Azoulay at least one year ahead of time.

According to article 2(6) of the UNESCO Constitution, a member state “may withdraw from the Organization by notice addressed to the Director-General. Such notice shall take effect on 31 December of the year following that during which the notice was given.”

UNESCO’s headquarters are closed until January 2, which appears to prevent Shama-Hacohen from delivering the letter before the end of the year.

But Shama-Hacohen vowed to find a solution to the problem.

“Yes, the organization is closed until next year, but the letter will be transmitted in time,” he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “Even if I have to climb over the fence, I am still in the age and physical condition allowing me to do so.”

Also, the notification is likely to be accepted as long as it is dated and sent before the end of the year, even if UNESCO only receives it  after the holidays.

Shama-Hacohen — a former lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party —  is very supportive of the prime minister’s decision to follow Washington’s lead in leaving the organization, which in recent years has made headlines for passing several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to the holy sites in Jerusalem.

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

“I think that this is appropriate, given this organization’s biased, one-sided and absurd attitude toward us, and against the background of the US’s strong stand at the UN, which we welcome,” Netanyahu said Sunday about his decision to withdraw.

Shama-Hacohen said Friday 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 who 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 which is highly unlikely in Israel’s case due to the automatic Arab majority.

Azoulay has acknowledged difficulties in the Paris-based organization, which has been rocked by US funding cuts since 2011 over the admission of Palestine as a member and a series of anti-Israel resolutions.

But the 45-year-old former French culture minister, who has already urged the US and Israel not to withdraw from UNESCO, told The Associated Press in October that the Trump administration’s announced plan to pull out of the agency was not tenable in the long term.

“I obviously regret their departure … but this ’empty chair politics’ is not sustainable because the United States is also affected by everything that UNESCO does,” she said, speaking at the agency’s Paris headquarters.

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.

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

There have been hopes that Azoulay, the organization’s first Jewish chief who is also of Moroccan descent, would be able to quell the political tempest inside the organization that was created following World War II to promote peace.

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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