Israel’s planned withdrawal from UNESCO unlikely to improve anything
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Analysis'Enemies of freedom will rapidly fill the vacuum'

Israel’s planned withdrawal from UNESCO unlikely to improve anything

Since the problem is with individual member states and not the institution itself, Jerusalem would only hurt its own interests by leaving, critics say

Raphael Ahren

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

A picture taken on October 12, 2017, shows the logo of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. (AFP/Jacques Demarthon)
A picture taken on October 12, 2017, shows the logo of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. (AFP/Jacques Demarthon)

Very few things enjoy across the board support from rival political camps in Israel, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last week to start “preparing” to leave UNESCO was one of them.

Such is the animosity felt in Israel to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for its slew of anti-Israel resolutions passed in recent years — many denying a Jewish connection to the holiest historical sites in the Land of Israel.

However, Israel’s pullout is unlikely to bring about the desired change at the organization, critics charge. If anything, it may negatively affect the Jewish state’s interests, they argue.

Israelis have long debated whether it is better to engage with biased organizations, trying to improve them from the inside, or to quit in order to delegitimize such bodies. So far with UNESCO, Jerusalem has mostly opted for the first option, despite the mounting frustration with absurdly one-sided resolutions. Last week, the latter school of thought achieved a grand victory.

First claiming victory, then quitting

The  irony is that Israel announced its desire to leave a day after it finally had some success there. And in part, the decision was spurred not by Israeli planning, but by a surprise US decision to quit.

Jerusalem had just celebrated a major diplomatic success. On October 11, the organization’s Executive Board unanimously agreed to delay voting on a pair of anti-Israel resolutions.

“The decisions you just adopted are, I hope, a wind of change that will mark the future of this organization,” Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, said right after the vote.

“When Israel became a member of UNESCO 68 years ago, we shared a dream of a better world, a dream of a better future. We still hold this dream, and we still believe that UNESCO is able to contribute to a better world for our children,” he declared.

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

In a statement commenting on the unprecedented “achievement,” Shama-Hacohen called it the “fruit of three years of hard, exhausting and frustrating diplomatic work. He added: “From this moment on we have already turned to the next round and there is no reason to rest on our laurels.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that “the next round” would constitute him calling for his own position to be terminated. Because minutes after the US announced it was leaving UNESCO, Shama-Hacohen recommended that Israel follow suit.

Some 30 hours after he had claimed victory in one battle and started preparing for the next one, he was suddenly urging Israel to quit the entire war. (According to Haaretz, Israel was blindsided by Washington’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO.)

French former culture minister and newly elected head of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay addresses a press conference following her election on October 13, 2017, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas Samson)

In another ironic twist, on October 13 — one day after Israel announced its intention to leave UNESCO — Audrey Azoulay, a Jewish woman who has relatives in Israel, defeated her Qatari rival and was elected the agency’s director-general.

In remarks immediately after her success, Azoulay pleaded that member states must “get involved” in the organization at what she called “a time of crisis,” and “not leave it.”

Israeli officials consider Azoulay’s victory to be good news, but even that didn’t affect their support for Jerusalem’s withdrawal from the cultural agency. Netanyahu on Sunday said he hoped UNESCO would abandon its “anti-Semitic” ways but added that he was not optimistic. “Therefore, my directive to leave the organization stands and we will move forward to carry it out,” he declared.

Now is not a time for democracies to abandon UNESCO

Jerusalem’s decision was lamented not only by UNESCO but also by some member states and even Jewish groups usually critical of the cultural agency’s anti-Israel bias.

“Now is not a time for democracies to abandon UNESCO,” said Shimon Samuels, director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Their departure will leave a vacuum rapidly filled by the enemies of freedom.”

Russia pointed out the irony of Israel quitting UNESCO a day after celebrating “a wind of change.”

In a statement denouncing Israel’s withdrawal, Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of Moscow’s Foreign Ministry, pointed out that Israel’s withdrawal “came at a time when a trend has emerged towards easing politicised tension during the discussion of ‘Palestinian resolutions’ concerning the preservation of Old Jerusalem and the restoration and development of the Gaza Strip as well as matters of culture, education, gender equality and youth work on the Palestinian territories.”

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova (screen capture via YouTube)

Israel’s move “will put an end to the Russian-Israeli cooperation within the Organisation’s framework,” Zakharova added, citing educational efforts to prevent extremism and radicalism and programs to commemorate the Holocaust.

Ironically, Russia is one of the countries that persistently voted in favor of the Arab-sponsored resolutions that prodded Israel to quit. However, when weighing Israel’s departure from UNESCO, it is important to remember that the decision to propose and support anti-Israel resolutions is made in capitals around the world and not at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters.

“There is nothing wrong with the organization. The problem is with the member states who submit specific texts and vote the way they do,” said Yigal Palmor, a former spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

UNESCO’s professional work “is just fine,” and many Israeli diplomats can attest to it, he added. “Israel has benefited professionally from working with UNESCO on specific programs, and all of this has nothing to do with the outrageous resolutions voted on at the Executive Committee.”

Irina Bokova, the organization’s outgoing director-general, was certainly no enemy of Israel — on the contrary, Palmor said.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, with cultural agency’s director-general Irina Bokova, September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

“She has gone out of her traditional diplomatic discretion to express great discomfort at some of the votes on Israel, but of course this has not influenced one bit any of the countries that have gathered there to vote out of purely politicized calculations, diplomatic cowardice, scandalous indifference or a clear, downright anti-Israel agenda.”

Jerusalem has good bilateral relations with Moscow, Beijing and others routinely backing pro-Palestinian resolutions in various international fora. “But in multilateral bodies, the rules of friendship change,” Palmor said. “So if we want to complain, we need to complain to the specific countries that raise their hand in favor of anti-Israel votes. They bear full responsibility, not the platform that has brought them together.”

Proponents of Jerusalem’s decision argue that important countries quitting UNESCO will scare the remaining member states into combating one-sided anti-Israel resolutions, lest the US and Israel withdraw from other organizations as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has warned that other UN bodies could also be on the American chopping block if they fail to rein in their anti-Israel obsession.

“Today’s decision is a turning point for UNESCO. The organization’s absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said Thursday. “Today is a new day at the UN, where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”

Palmor disagrees with this premise. Quitting UNESCO, he asserted, will most certainly not cause it become more Israel-friendly.

“Would China or Cuba or Libya or Qatar be so deeply moved or confounded by the US leaving that it will make them engage in deep soul-searching to mend their ways? I don’t think so,” he said. Some European countries might get the message, he allowed, “but by and large the other troublemakers at UNESCO will not be moved.”

Did the US push Israel into a corner?

Shmuel Rosner, a journalist and senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, suggested that Israel doesn’t really want to quit UNESCO. The entire UN system, and many other international organizations, are inherently biased against the Jewish state, and yet Israel’s strategy has always been to try to effect change from the inside, he argued.

Israel announced it was quitting UNESCO only because the US administration left it no other choice, Rosner wrote in Wednesday’s International New York Times.

“Israel can’t possibly let the United States leave an organization over anti-Israel bias and still remain a member itself. At the same time, Israel also can’t appear ungrateful toward the United States and hint that leaving Unesco might not be the best move for Israel,” he wrote.

“But the truth is, Israel would prefer to continue its longtime strategy at the United Nations: staying a member and fighting for Israel’s interests. Israel would rather work on getting Unesco to improve — become a little less hostile, and even more so, less obsessed with Israel. But now that option seems to be in danger.”

UNESCO’s Executive Board voting for the agency’s new director-general, October 2017 (courtesy)

On October 12, the US State Department notified UNESCO of its desire to withdraw from the organization. According to the UNESCO Constitution, that decision will take effect on December 31, 2018 (there is no way to leave sooner).

Israel, on the other hand, has yet to formally notify UNESCO about its intention to quit, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said Wednesday. So far, Jerusalem has merely “started preparing” for the move, he said.

In other words, it is not too late for Israel to withdraw from the withdrawal.

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