Outrageous as it may be, UNESCO’s Jerusalem vote has a silver lining

An April resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount garnered a big majority. This time, Palestinians had a little less cause to celebrate

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

UNESCO delegates prior to the opening of the organization's 2013 General Conference in Paris, France. (AP/Benjamin Girette)
UNESCO delegates prior to the opening of the organization's 2013 General Conference in Paris, France. (AP/Benjamin Girette)

On April 15, the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution that ignores Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Brazil was one of the nations that voted in favor. A month later, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry issued a statement acknowledging that, in failing to mention the “historical ties of the Jewish people to Jerusalem,” the text was “partial and unbalanced.” The government pledged to “review its vote if the deficiencies pointed out in the decision are not corrected in future assessment of the subject by UNESCO.”

On Thursday, UNESCO voted on an almost identical resolution, which still made no mention of Jewish ties to the Temple Mount. Twenty-four members of the organization’s executive board voted in favor — including Brazil. Admittedly, since April the Latin American country has elected a new president, Michel Termer, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly described him as more favorable to Israel than his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff. Go figure.

Brasilia’s support for the resolution on Thursday underlines just how entrenched pro-Palestinian voting patterns still are in the international community, and how much work is left for Israeli diplomats to defeat the Arabs’ automatic majority in multilateral organizations.

And yet, observers of Israeli diplomacy have two ways to look at the UNESCO resolution, which passed in Paris with 24 yes votes, six no votes and 26 abstentions.

The obvious choice is utter outrage. Indeed, any Jew, religious or not (or any historian, for that matter), is likely to scorn a resolution about the Temple Mount that fails to acknowledge — nay, intentionally omits — the Jewish people’s connection to what has been its holiest site for 3,000 years. And the fact that even countries such as France, Italy, Kenya and Japan — ostensible friends of the Jewish state — could not bring themselves to vote against such a blatant distortion of history, further fueled Israeli anger.

The Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount (undated) (photo credit: © DEIAHL, Jerusalem)
The Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (undated) (DEIAHL)

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum were hence quick to denounce UNESCO for allowing the resolution to pass.

“What’s next?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook profile. “A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll? Is it any wonder the UN has become a moral farce when UNESCO, the UN body tasked with preserving history, denies and distorts history?”

(Did Netanyahu, who constantly hails the steady improvement of Israel’s standing in the world, forget that it is not the organization itself but its member states who vote on resolutions? Thursday’s contentious draft was backed by Russia, China, Mexico, Nigeria and other states the prime minister considers Israel’s allies.)

MK Avi Dichter, who heads the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and defense committee, threatened that anyone who tries to change history “will end up being thrown into the dustbin of history.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called UNESCO’s decision “anti-Semitic.” The only proper response, he said, was to continue “strengthening our hold on Jerusalem and the Land of Israel,” which is right-wing code for expanding settlements outside the pre-1967 borders.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett called it “diplomatic terror,” juxtaposing it with the “cultural cleansing” actions of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Left-wingers were outraged too. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called the decision “a terrible lie.” Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli suggested that the delegates were “on drugs.” MK Hilik Bar (also Zionist Union) said “Apparently there is no connection between UNESCO to earth nor to human history.”

Seven countries switch from support to abstention

Losing a vote 24-6 is a clear diplomat defeat; there is no other way to describe it. But when one takes a closer look at the outcome of Thursday’s vote, there is another side to the story, in which a silver lining of sorts emerges that was almost lost in the chorus of outrage. Compared to the April vote on the same matter, which similarly turned a blind eye to the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, Thursday’s result marked a not-insignificant improvement, from an Israeli perspective.

Seven countries that just six months ago voted in favor of the resolution now abstained, among them heavyweights France and India.

After an Israeli outcry over the April vote, Paris had admitted that its yes vote was a mistake and so the French abstention was not really a surprise. But Israeli officials did not expect countries like India and Sweden to refuse backing the Palestinian draft, which was sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. (The other countries which surprisingly changed from yes to abstention were Spain, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Guinea and Togo.)

While the number of countries voting against the draft remained low at six — the US, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia — this time around supporters of the resolution failed to garner an overall majority. In April, 33 states voted yes and 17 abstained. On Thursday for the first time more countries abstained than supported the text.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was one of the few Israeli officials taking note of this relative achievement. “The fact that more states abstained than supported the resolution underscores the deep reservations of many states with regard to this shameful resolution,” she said.

What makes these numbers more noteworthy is the fact that Thursday’s draft included a reference to the “importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” The previous resolution contained no similar phrase; the Palestinians inserted it now hoping to maintain the support of countries which they feared would feel uncomfortable with a text that contained absolutely no nod to Jewish and Christian ties to the Holy City. Support for the resolution still dropped from 33 countries to 24.

Israel's Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama Hacohen. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-HaCohen. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The Palestinians have lost all support in Europe, including in France, Spain and even in Sweden,” Ambassador Carmel Shama-HaCohen, Israel’s chief envoy to UNESCO, told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “Together with the fact that key countries such as India and Argentina switched from support to abstention, this is a significant achievement, given the starting conditions and previous votes. In the end, a majority of member of UNESCO’s executive board, and certainly an overwhelming majority of the democratic Western world, did not support this draft resolution.”

Hillel Neuer, the head of Geneva-based UN Watch, went as far as positing that “the Palestinians suffered a significant defeat in the international arena.”

Neuer wrote on the UN Watch blog that every state refusing to oppose the text should be ashamed of itself, but noted nonetheless that “in the world of UN realpolitik a shift from a ‘Yes’ vote to ‘Abstain’ can speak volumes, causing major ripples in diplomatic relations with the affected countries. Every movement in voting is carefully tracked as an indication of political support and alliance.”

Neuer rightly stressed that it was too early to declare Thursday’s vote a reversal of the anti-Israel trend at the UN. Indeed, this week’s relative success may only be the function of the world’s unwillingness to blindly support resolutions that obviously and shamelessly distort history. A possible future Security Council resolution condemning settlements or calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will still likely get an overwhelming majority.

And yet, the fact that their victory Thursday was marred by a negative trend in Israel’s favor was not lost on the Palestinians.

“We regret that [a] few countries succumbed to the PR bullying orchestrated by Israel,” the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah said in a statement. Jerusalem’s managed to shift the focus from Israel’s illegal actions “to issues irrelevant to the content and objectives of the resolutions, which aims to put an end to Israel’s dangerous and illegal actions against holy sites in Jerusalem,” the statement continued. “This is especially regrettable since those member states are well aware of the dangerous situation in Jerusalem.”

While welcoming the resolution’s passing and dismissing Israel’s diplomatic efforts as “propaganda,” “cynical spin” and “distortions and smear campaigns,” the Palestinians also vowed to continue pushing the international community to confront Israel.

More diplomatic battles await.


This is how the members of UNESCO’s executive board voted on Thursday:

In favor: Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritius, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam.

Against: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.

Abstaining: Albania, Argentina, Cameroon, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Haiti, India, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Paraguay, Saint Vincent and Nevis, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda and Ukraine.

Serbia and Turkmenistan were absent.

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