PM was to attend UNESCO anti-Semitism event, backed out because of US — report

Western diplomats tell Channel 10 that scathing Netanyahu statement on organization is ‘fake news,’ decry premier’s ‘sad, upsetting behavior’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haly on Friday, 28 September 2018 in New York. (Avi Ohayon /GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haly on Friday, 28 September 2018 in New York. (Avi Ohayon /GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had plans in motion to attend and give a speech at a UNESCO-sponsored event on anti-Semitism on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week, but then backed out because of the US, and went on to slam the organization, doubling down on a previous decision to withdraw from it, according to a report on Saturday on Israel’s Channel 10.

In August, Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu had accepted an invitation from new UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay to attend the first-of-its-kind event, which was seen as an attempt by Azoulay to improve ties between the organization and Israel.

Netanyahu had called Azoulay in July, praising her for the fact that no anti-Israel resolutions had been passed at UNESCO for nearly a year. Azoulay reportedly told Netanyahu at the time that she was making large efforts to change UNESCO’s treatment of Israel, and added she would like to meet him on the sidelines of the UN session to discuss a possible postponement of Israel’s exit from the agency.

A few days after the call, according to the Saturday report, citing Western diplomats, senior Israeli officials turned to UNESCO to verify if the organization was interested in having Netanyahu attend the anti-Semitism conference. Netanyahu would agree to attend on the condition that he would be first in line to give a speech at the event, and would have at least nine minutes, according to the report.

UNESCO agreed and a formal invitation was sent to Netanyahu by August, but the Prime Minister’s Office never responded to the invite. Requests by UNESCO officials made to Israeli diplomats for a final response went unanswered due to the Jewish holidays which began in early September, Channel 10 reported.

In this November 10, 2017 picture, UNESCO’S new elected director-general France’s Audrey Azoulay attends a press conference at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation headquarters in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

UNESCO finally received a response that Netanyahu would not attend last Friday, according to the report.

Then on Wednesday, hours before the event was to start, Netanyahu published a statement harshly criticizing UNESCO, which reportedly shocked and offended Azoulay, according to Western diplomats.

“Netanyahu’s statement was ‘fake news.’ He simply ignored all the positive changes toward Israel that took place over the past year at UNESCO. It’s sad and upsetting that this is the behavior of the prime minister of Israel,” Western diplomats were quoted telling Channel 10.

According to the report, Netanyahu backed out of attending the event so as not to anger the United States, which has taken a hard line with UNESCO. In October, it announced that it was withdrawing from the organization, citing anti-Israel bias.

On Friday, Netanyahu met with US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, telling her, “You’ve been doing, with President Trump and your activities, you’ve been doing wonderful things – I mean UNESCO, on UNRWA, on anti-Israel resolutions, on resolutions condemning Hamas, can you imagine that?”

“I am speaking as a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, and I have the podium each year, so each year I come and say what I have to say about the UN. But I said yesterday that the hall still permeates with the stench of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic resolutions, which are the same. And I want to thank you for clearing the air out of that hall,” he said.

In his statement announcing he was rejecting the UNESCO invite on Wednesday, Netanyahu said: “While I commend all efforts to combat anti-Semitism, I have decided not to participate in this week’s UNESCO conference on anti-Semitism due to the organization’s persistent and egregious bias against Israel.”

“Since 2009, UNESCO has passed 71 resolutions condemning Israel and only two resolutions condemning all other countries combined,” he said. “This is simply outrageous.”

“The mark of anti-Semitism was once singling out the Jewish people for slander and condemnation. The mark of anti-Semitism today is singling out the Jewish state for slander and condemnation,” he said.

If UNESCO wants to remove “this mark of shame,” the prime minister said, “it must do more than host a conference on anti-Semitism. It must stop practicing anti-Semitism. And it must stop the absurdity of passing resolutions that deny the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, between the Jewish people and our eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Last year, Israel followed the US in announcing its withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Jerusalem reportedly considered remaining in the organization on condition that several changes were made in the way it deals with politicized matters, such as the status of Jerusalem’s Old City or the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

The Cave of the Patriarchs in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“No matter what UNESCO says, the Western Wall is not occupied Palestinian territory and the Cave of the Patriarchs — the burial site of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah — is not a Palestinian Heritage Site,” Netanyahu said.

“In withdrawing from UNESCO in 2017, Israel and the United States made a clear moral statement that UNESCO’s anti-Semitism will no longer be tolerated,” he went on.

“If and when UNESCO ends its bias against Israel, stops denying history and starts standing up for the truth, Israel will be honored to rejoin. Until then, Israel will fight anti-Semitism at UNESCO and everywhere else,” he said.

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.

In June, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, suggested a rethinking of Israel’s planned exit from the world cultural body, citing a “new spirit” in the organization after two resolutions critical of the Jewish state, regarding the old cities of Jerusalem and Hebron, were delayed by one year at the agency’s World Heritage Committee.

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